On April 7, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $42 billion bailout for the restaurant industry. It faces resistance in the evenly divided Senate. Republicans are, unsurprisingly, opposed to fresh pandemic spending in an election year. In the eyes of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the industry’s main lobbying group, the bill’s chances are still “uncertain.”
But if the bill does pass, it will be a massive victory for the NRA, as Democratic leaders who crafted the legislation are firmly in the pocket of those corporate lobbyists. Like a $29 billion version signed into law last year, this legislation is a blank check for restaurant investors and owners. It contains nothing that will directly improve workers’ pay or benefits. It will not even save their jobs if there is another COVID surge and shutdown. Cooks, servers, and bartenders need real aid and huge changes at work, but Congress is only talking to their bosses.
With no help coming from above, the only solution for America’s 15 million food-service workers is the same for workers everywhere: we need to form unions and get organized. The recent wave of unionization at Starbucks might show the way forward.
The new House bill is H.R. 3807, the Relief for Restaurants and other Hard Hit Small Businesses Act of 2022. It would inject $42 billion into the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). Last spring, the program awarded $29 billion in grants to restaurants to offset pandemic-related losses. This new bill would replenish the RRF enough to send money to an additional 177,000 businesses, or about 20 percent of all US restaurants.
The NRA and its new, smaller competitor, the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), have been ringing alarm bells about the industry’s collapse and the danger to the wider economy. They claim that 80 percent of restaurants that missed the first round of RRF grants are at risk of permanent closure, endangering 1.6 million jobs. To market the bailout to Democrats, the IRC has also highlighted the struggles of minority-owned small businesses.
All in all, this campaign has worked pretty well. The bailout has bipartisan sponsors. Nearly every Democrat in the House last week voted for H.R. 3807. Majority leader Chuck Schumer, who has close ties to New York restaurateurs like Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, is promising a floor vote in the Senate.
The problem is that these bills were written by and for restaurant owners.
The RRF has no conditions that force or even encourage businesses to spend the money on their employees. The only requirement for receiving up to $10 million in public money is signing a piece of paper saying your restaurant is open or plans to reopen soon.
This no-strings-attached approach is out of step with other pandemic initiatives like the airline bailout (backed by strong airline unions), which directed 100 percent of the money to payroll costs like keeping workers employed or offering sick leave. The minimum percentage called for in the restaurant bailout? Zero.
The NRA says owners need the flexibility to save the industry, but they’re just pocketing the cash. Restaurant owners have already collected a total of $73 billion of government relief; the typical owner raked in thirty times more than their average worker. Right now, the hospitality sector is experiencing a historic “Great Resignation” as millions of workers fed up with years of exploitation quit their jobs — hardly an indication that restaurant bosses are suddenly putting profit aside and looking after their workers.
Big corporate handouts are no surprise for an industry where owners are much better organized than workers.
The NRA, the IRC, and their members have vast wealth and an army of political allies at their disposal. Union density in food service, on the other hand, is barely 1 percent. Seventy percent of US restaurants are independent single-unit operations, but unions at independent restaurants are almost unheard of today.
The balance of power is tilted so heavily in the bosses’ favor that it’s hard to just blame the politicians. In early 2021, a group of worker-activists called Restaurant Workers United and I talked to congressional legislative staff about the problems with the RRF. We were the first food-service workers they had heard from. Meanwhile, the IRC had been aggressively lobbying every congressional office for months.
Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) was a brave, lone voice of public dissent against the bailout last year. This time around, she won a House amendment prohibiting grants to businesses with wage theft violations. Beyond that, the only debate on the floor was how to pay for the bailout and whether gyms and music venues should get a slice, too.
Democrats will keep ignoring the needs of workers until there is strong pressure from those workers. Believe it or not, there was a time when bar and restaurant workers had big, militant unions all across the United States that could advocate for their own interests.
In Dishing It Out, labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble estimates union density in restaurants reached a peak of 25 percent nationwide after World War II. Eighty to 90 percent of San Francisco Bay Area servers and cooks were card-carrying union members as late as 1961. Restaurant unionists eventually suffered the same defeats as the rest of organized labor. The Taft-Hartley Act, the generalized ravaging of neoliberalism, and the rise in the size and power of chain restaurants all combined to decimate union standards.
Today, there are signs that simmering labor unrest might finally boil over post-pandemic. Jaz Brisack and her coworkers in Buffalo, New York, won the first union election at a corporate-owned Starbucks in the United States in December. Since then, baristas have filed to unionize over two hundred other stores and won dozens of elections.
Starbucks could be what SEIU in the 1990s called a breakthrough campaign: “a combination of thinking big, engaging workers, communities, and allies for a long campaign” that results in massive union expansion. The Buffalo locations were chosen deliberately, but the rest have been a genuinely organic uprising of Starbucks workers who saw that winning is possible. These baristas have shown how we could launch breakthrough campaigns against employers with national name recognition and inspire large numbers of workers to self-organize quickly.
What about independent restaurants, where 11 million of America’s baristas, cooks, bartenders, servers, and dishwashers work? Rather than a single employer, a breakthrough campaign for independent restaurants probably needs to take on a whole local industry. The best target would be a city’s premier “restaurant group,” or a popular restaurant district. Combine tried-and-true union organizing with social movement tactics. Frame demands in the broadest possible terms. Do lots of direct actions that are highly visible, even spectacular.
The old culinary unionists knew that they had to bring the fight to the boss at the places they worked to build power, but they built even more when other workers joined their picket lines and started fighting, too.
Restaurant workers have organized and won big things before. We can do it again.