Waging Change (2019)

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Toba Singer
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Peabody Award winner Abby Ginzberg’s documentary film, “Waging Change,” tells a compelling story exposing the sordid working conditions in the restaurant industry, focusing on its lowest paid tip wait staff. Customer tips in lieu of employer wages begins on a timeline at the point when slavery ends, and the railroads refused  to pay wages to black workers. Prohibition, according to an “Adam Ruins Everything” episode, offered another opportunity for employers to substitute tipping for wages when speakeasy customers tipped waiters for (illegal) alcoholic beverage service.

 The modern-day restructuring of the U.S. economy began in earnest following the 1973-74 world stock market crash, precipitated by the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency values system. Devaluation of the U.S. dollar, and post-war industrial competition from Germany and Japan, resulted in a trade war ushering in a US manufacturing blight. By default, the restaurant industry became the largest employer in the US. Despite a national minimum wage of $15 an hour, in many states, tip wait staff receive a paltry $2.13. Workers paid that wage regularly receive paychecks marked “VOID,” with a draft amount of zero, because after deductions, there is a negative balance. Such workers live exclusively on tips.

The film tells a semi-clandestine story that it is important to bring to light. It pegs the sharp decline in restaurant worker wages to the sensational events that took place at New York’s  World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when Saudi terrorists flew two planes into the twin tower structure there. On that morning, the building’s emblematic Windows on the World restaurant, came crashing down, killing all but two of its day shift staff. According to Ginzberg, the restaurant industry was permanently transformed by that event.

This interpretation proposes that a terrorist act, meant to draw world attention to the crimes of US imperialism in the Middle East, instead ended up favoring the fortunes of the restaurant industry and its investors.  In some cases, those investors were one and the same as those ithe 9/11 hijackers forfeited their lives to ruin. Whether you accept Ginzberg’s take or not, the film’s depiction of the penury that restaurant workers live under, makes it one you should see.

Was 9/11 responsible for the attack on restaurant workers’ wages? A comparison with COVID’s links to the current economic depression might prove helpful in answering  that question. Did COVID bring about the economic depression we are now suffering, or did the challenge of fighting COVID lay bare the extent of the economic, social, and political  failings and inadequacies of the capitalist system?

It seems clear that  9/11 didn’t trigger the economic reconfiguration. Instead it offered up an opportunity to market it, repackaged in patriotic bunting, with appeals like the ones that begin with the seditious words “We’re all in this together.” So went the message that “all of us” must sacrifice in the spirit of first responders who gave their lives to save victims of the Twin Towers collapse. They were the words that allowed the US government’s insoucient unpreparedness and negligence to go unpunished.  “Expect less!” became the rejoinder. And indeed, 20 years later, today’s restaurant workers, whose same government is similarly unprepared and negligent as concerns COVID-19, are expected to sacrifice their lives and those of their families. This “recovery through sacrifice” package additionally entails giving up the dream of a union wage, and the social wage covering health care, unemployment, education, child care, housing, and elder care.

The film reminds us that employers have returned to the time-honored practice of “tip stealing,” where the lion’s share of the wages that workers used to take home is being seamlessly transferred into the direct deposit accounts their employers. This model, lionized after 9/11, quickly won fans among restaurant chains and stand-alone restaurants across the country.  Employers, large or small, regained their foothold on the backs of restaurant workers, who are twenty years later working two or even three jobs and a sixty-hour week to earn what they had made during a 40-hour week before the collateral benefits of 9/11 larded their bosses’ coffers. In New Mexico, this multi-job work week  has a name. It’s called “The Santa Fe Shuffle.”

The scale was tipped socially as well. If tips are the shank of wages, competition among workers increases for best stations, shifts, and for popularity with customers, undermining a natural tendency toward winning gains through cooperation and solidarity. The film reports that 90 percent of restaurant workers are women. When the boss tells waitresses to wear uniforms that show cleavage, and tight miniskirts, which inevitably draw demeaning comments from customers, or when bosses engage in sexual intimidation and harassment, the woman worker is less inclined to protest, file a grievance, or forfeit seniority in the hopes of finding a better job. Managers traditionally fill non-tip jobs in the kitchen with non-white workers, who earn a flat minimum wage, and stand little or no chance to “move up” to a front-of-house server job where tips increase income. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t make the pivotal argument that tips divide workers, pass labor costs on to the consumer, and should be eliminated altogether in favor of a union scale wage on a par with workers in other industries. Without unions, sexual, sexist, and racial oppression and discrimination in the workplace have free rein. With unions, workers can fight such injustices through the grievance system, and by taking the employer to task with the authority of the union protecting them and their jobs.

The film introduces Saru Jayaraman who in turn introduces restaurant workers Nataki Rhodes of Chicago, Andrea Velasquez of Detroit and Wardell Harvey of New Orleans, who make up the cadre of an organization called One Fair Wage. As they recount their personal work experiences, we gain a deeper understanding of the social cost of restructured wages and hiring practices. Workers can no longer afford to live in secure, stable, working class neighborhoods. They must move in with other family members, rely on food banks, even as they put before their customers, plates brimming over with food that would cost them a day’s wages. Single mothers working double shifts cannot afford childcare, and receive no health care insurance from their employers.  

Footage of the standoffs between the industry’s National Restaurant Association and efforts by  One Fair Wage to win a living wage, show victories in referenda, but also, NRA-influenced elected officials later overturning them. Organizers who came to One Fair Wage as waiters and bartenders, then leave those jobs to take paid “advocate” posts. Instead of workers continuing to be active in their workplace, the organizing effort gives way to  pressuring restaurateurs to join hands with workers to create a multi-class specie of restaurant along the lines of the “fair trade” model. Side by side with this respectable face, there’s the documentary’s spectacle aspect: TV stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, petition on street corners, or offer commentary to add a virtue-signaling factor to a non-virtuous retreat from on-the-job organizing.

There is passing mention of the $15 figure of the previous decade’s  “15 and a union” national minimum wage fight. This initiative inspired large numbers of service workers to take to the streets to demand both a $15 minimum wage and that their unions undertake massive organizing drives.  Clearly, the $15 minimum wage is not a living wage, and any bona fide effort to organize  not only restaurant workers, but service workers overall, must demand a living wage at union scale. As COVID-19 continues to spread and shapeshift, vaccines shortages occur side by side with vials of it expiring in warehouses understaffed by workers paid a sub-living wage.

Toba Singer

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