As if supply and demand weren’t enough of a labor problem for restaurants, along comes a pummeling from unions and their fellow travelers. Those parties aren’t exactly renowned for taking a lofty approach in their dealings with the industry, but these moves may have set a new low. The business should be outraged and fighting mad, yet the developments slipped past with little if any notice—even with such a blockbuster development as an historic unionization.
Here, with apologies to high blood pressure sufferers, are the shin kicks that should draw a loud, collective ouch.
1. Unionization claims an unlikely victim
After a two-year tussle, employees of a Burgerville quick-service restaurant in Portland, Ore., have voted 18-4 to unionize, forming what the group says is the nation’s first federally recognized fast-food collective bargaining unit.
The regional chain said in a video statement that it recognizes the vote, as supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, and will negotiate in good faith with the staff of the store. “Our employees have spoken, we hear them, and we support their decision,” said Beth Brewer, Burgerville’s SVP of operations.
The Burgerville Workers Union, an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World, says it has already begun to organize five more Burgerville stores, and filed a petition with the NLRB on April 18 to schedule a vote at one of the units.
The staff is demanding a $5 an hour raise, free childcare and affordable healthcare.
Monday’s vote is the outcome of a struggle extending back to 2016, when employees alerted management that they would act in concert going forward on wage and benefit negotiations. They in effect declared themselves a union, and pledged to act accordingly.
Disputes over whether the group was or was not a union led to a petition to the NLRB, which said that a vote should be held.
Burgerville has been recognized for its employee orientation. The chain was one of the first to offer health benefits to its staff.
The industry is taking a wait-and-see attitude. "ORLA respects the workplace policies of our members and the way they choose to operate their establishments,”commented Jason Brandt, CEO of thOregon Restaurant & Lodging Association.
2. ROC crashes the National Restaurant Association’s party
Every year, the National Restaurant Association invites its membership to descend on Washington, D.C., for a primer on legislative issues pertinent to the business. It then facilitates get-togethers between the attending operators and their congressmen and senators, so lawmakers can hear firsthand why their constituents are concerned about certain government matters.
It’s hard to find fault with the Public Affairs Conference, as the event is called, because it’s democracy in action. Indeed, presumably because of its import and effectiveness, a bitter opponent of the association decided to throw some sand in the gears.
The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a group that insists it’s not a union despite functioning like one, decided that it would hold its own version of the conference—at exactly the same time the restaurant association’s members were on Capitol Hill. A union paper reported that 70 restaurant owners who support ROC’s goals were brought to Congress specifically to counter what lawmakers had just heard from operators who weren’t aligned with the quasi-union’s goals.
The account alleges that one legislator kicked out the larger group’s representatives to welcome ROC’s contingent, though that report has not been verified.
3. A leak intended to draw blood
No one has ’fessed up to leaking a piece of research that was conducted for the National Restaurant Association by the prominent attitudinal researcher Luntz Global, but it was clearly not a champion of the business.
A slideshow based on the results was obtained and published by TheIntercept.com, the website that published the secret documents swiped from the federal government by Edward Snowden. The deck covered a number of topics, from how the industry is perceived overall, to what Americans believe restaurant workers take away from their jobs beyond pay. Yet the accompanying analysis by The Intercept and reports echoing that assessment focused largely on one thing: a factoid about raising the minimum wage.
A survey by Luntz Global found that 71% of Americans would favor hiking the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour, and the same percentage would welcome an increase of that scale even if it meant an increase in prices.
Lost in the limited (and often admittedly slanted) coverage were tidbits such as 80% of Americans having a favorable impression of the restaurant industry and 64% believing restaurant jobs instill a positive work ethic.
The real overlooked statistical gem: 35% of consumers would support exempting servers’ tips from income taxes as an alternative way of boosting restaurant employees’ incomes.
“The public opinion research confirmed our ongoing efforts to find a solution that balances the needs of customers, employees, and business owners," said a spokesperson for the restaurant association. "When it comes to minimum wage, there is not a one-size-fits-all policy. What works in New York City could be drastically different than what works in Tulsa, Okla. The research addressed a range of employment issues, including immigration reform and second-chance employment for non-violent, first time offenders.”
4. New York’s tip credit draws sharpshooters’ fire
If the first skirmish in New York’s newfound battle over the tip credit is an indication, restaurateurs in the Empire State will have a tough time preserving that compensation model.
The most elaborate dance number on Broadway would have looked like a grade school pageant compared with the choreography ROC and affiliated unions like Service Employees International Union mustered for the first round of hearings. Server after server provided heart-tugging testimony of their struggle for respect and a good life under the current way their pay is calculated.
A goodly number of servers, part of the pro-tip-credit Restaurant Workers of America group, were also on hand. They were the ones complaining about having to wait for a chance to speak, since being there during the lunch rush was costing them money. They may have been motivated in part by the conviction—wholly unconfirmed—that ROC’s sympathizers were being compensated for what they lost from taking a day off from work.
They were also the ones who looked on as a group wearing identical "Food Workers" T-shirts were treated to box lunches carted in by their organizers.