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Common Foodsense: Employers and Employees Must Talk About Wage Issue



All the trade magazines and newsletters that choke my inbox seem to be shouting with one voice against the rising waters of the minimum wage. These publications, of course, represent the paying side of the industry, the “er” side of the employer-employee relationship. 

From the “ees,” we hear a namesake screeching about stagnant, crappy pay and nonexistent benefits. From the “ers” we hear the loud wails of malnourished margins and the thunderous proclamations of financial doom. One side says it’s trying to knock down the walls that close it off from a decent life; the other says it’s building up the levees that will keep floodwaters from washing away everyone’s livelihoods. The “ees” are out in the street to build the sympathy of the public, and the “ers” are hiring lobbyists. And though they work together every day, neither side talks to the other.

We’ll see if this grand experiment in non-communication works, and for which side. There is a secret hope held by some in management that this new administration, though it campaigned as a champion of the proletariat, will prove as willing to step on the necks of workers as the more traditional supply-siders. After all, the nominee to head the Department of Labor doesn’t seem to hold his line-level employees in high esteem, and looks forward to the day he can replace them with robots. The nominee’s own new boss, characteristically, has said both that the federal minimum wage should go up (July 2015), and that it shouldn’t (May 2015), so don’t look there for clarity.

If the national minimum wage is unlikely to change, the focus for both sides must then become local. The levees have already cracked in Seattle, where studies will show you that the magic $15 has crippled the economy forever—or that it has recreated the Garden of Eden with perhaps a bit too much rain. You can choose your report to suit your own prejudices, and from the various things I’ve read about the new minimum wage, that’s pretty much what every reporter has done.

That leaves one with that most slippery of surfaces for a debate to dance on: logic. And lord, how I hate it. Give me blind fanaticism every time; it’s much more energizing. But let’s give it a try: 

 Will the lives of low-wage employees get better if their wages go up a whole bunch, and they get paid sick leave and vacations, plus employer-sponsored health insurance? Probably.

 Will a lot of restaurants go broke if all these things come to pass at once? Probably.

I’m not going to argue the merits of either position right now. I’ve done that in the past, without noticeable effect—possibly because I have a great deal of sympathy for both of them. I have been a poorly paid line worker, and I’ve been a consultant to owners who were trying to control their labor costs, and the odd thing about seeing this question from both perspectives is how lonely that vantage point is. There still seems to be a sense that we’re all in this business together, but only while we’re at work, and never on payday. Off to the streets or the statehouse to make your case, but don’t talk to the people you work with. Weird.

And you want to know what’s missing from this picture? Strong unions with a contentious relationship with a strong, pugnacious management. 

Now hear me out, please; you’ve only got a few hundred more words to read. I know that most folks who fall into the category of “exempt” employees have a visceral reaction to the concept of unions that is almost indistinguishable from passing a kidney stone. However, when you are screaming at the union rep in a wage negotiation and she is threatening to shut down the entire city, you are having a family dispute. She knows that her job—and the jobs she represents at this meeting—depend on your staying in business, and she will push so far and no further. Similarly, you know that you need the people she is arguing for, and that truly screwing them only winds up screwing yourself. And each of you are aware of the other’s understanding, even concealed under profanity, wild threats, and (back in the good old days) clouds of toxic smoke.

Legislators, on the other hand, care about their own jobs, not your business, not your employees. This is a prejudiced generalization, I admit, but a cautionary one. On the left, they will look to the benefit of the workers without assessing collateral damage. On the right, they will look to favor the employers without checking to see if the kind of favors they hand out will leave the employers without employees—or without competent ones, at least. Again, collateral damage. When the situation has gotten so bad that outsiders impose solutions upon us with no skin in our game, we are sunk. And they don’t care, really. Applebee’s can always fill the gap.

When I first moved to San Francisco, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union was enjoying a brief period of strength and solidarity. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association hated them, of course, and happily broke the union’s back when it called an idiotic strike four years later. 

It had a predictable effect on the workers. I had arrived in what seemed like that mythical Eden, where line workers made a living wage with terrific benefits. The result was a kitchen staff with almost no turnover and an exceptional level of skill. Now it’s like many other places: lousy benefits and not enough pay to live in the city where you work. I can imagine what employee retention is like, and the resultant skill level of the labor pool. I don’t know that unions are the answer to our industry’s current set of problems, but depending on an election to direct our industry’s future seems like a particularly dicey way to operate. Elections can shift policy directions rather dramatically, and they come every two years. Better we leave outsiders to their discussions of copper-nickel mining, and learn how to talk to each other, even if we occasionally scream. 


Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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