Letter: Life in the Fast Food and Service Lane

fastfoodstrikeIn the Au Bon Pain I worked at, with the exception of one manager, the black men worked overnight or in back and out of sight. The white men worked off to the side, in the sandwich and salad area. The women, as a rule, worked the registers. Shifts were short and irregular, workplace tension between managers and employees was high, and individual walkouts were common. The workers who had been there the longest, together with myself (at that time, a communist, yet unorganized) began to explore the possibility of a union. Some employees—grown men and women—were so terrified of reprisals that they would not even discuss it. So much for freedom of speech and association.

I was also employed by Panera Bread, whose employees are allowed one half-off meal per shift, or, if it is more than eight hours, one “free” meal. So truly progressive is this company that, like angels, they gift their stale bread to their hungry employees. Panera’s work-regime is horrible, the training is woefully inadequate, and the standard for the pace of work is continually inched up through time-and-motion studies by regional management. In this way, hours are cut, jobs are cut, and fewer workers are made to do more and more, while wages stay very close to the legal minimum. When I worked there—with a decade of restaurant experience behind me—I was paid $8.50 and received just twenty or thirty hours a week.

At Papa Johns, where my coke-addicted manager screamed at the workers to pick up the pace, or, on his best days, made racist jokes about the workers, just two or three hours a week were all that many employees saw. We were encouraged to sign up for pay cards, replacing paychecks, whose value could only be withdrawn in increments of $10 or $20, which guaranteed you would never get the last couple of dollars, so that in a way you were made dependent on that specific employer, week after week.

La Madeleine’s work regime was tolerable. The managers were polite and reasonable. The pace of work wasn’t as insane as at Papa John’s and Panera. However, they systematically lied to the workers about the expense of fixing the plumbing, and we were at times made to stand in several inches of waste water refuse—stinking, putrid, wretched, filthy, and germ-infested—all so the owners could avoid spending what was obviously necessary to make the fix. How thrifty!

I also worked for Kohl’s, doing shipping and receiving. The shifts were three or four hours. Teams would work ceaselessly to unload trucks full of products that would then cover the floors and shelves of one of the most high-volume stores in the country. After that we were cut loose. Management eventually realized that the overnight workers were working at a slower pace than our team. The decision was made to cut our entire shift and transfer the entire workload onto the overnight team. The managers were always gone on vacation, it seemed, and we were goaded into celebrating their bonuses—the result, they said, of all our hard work. When my team was called in for a meeting with the managers and told our shift was being cut, we got up and went out to eat without clocking out.

That was the first and only coordinated walk out I have ever been a participant in, and I can tell you the anger and frustration was palpable. Most of us never went back, but I took an offer to stay with the company working . . . the overnight shift! Despite laws against the practice, we were locked inside at night. The pace of work was intolerable, and night work is by definition miserable and disorienting. I subsequently walked out, and as I crossed the parking lot at 1:30 a.m., the alarm sounded.
Then I was hired and helped to open a new Sweet Tomatoes location. The pace of work was the fastest I’ve seen anywhere, so that the workers could barely keep up and the managers were always on edge. The style of management was to scream at the employees in front of customers. Not very pleasant, and not a little degrading.
The racism, sexism, overwork, low pay, degrading management, and constant pressure to take a second and third job is common at virtually all companies in restaurant, fast food, and retail in the United States, with practically no exceptions.

Employers cut corners constantly, placing the burden of a slightly increased profit margin right onto the muscles and nerves of the employees, whose pay stays the same. I have had over twenty-five jobs—all but one or two of them in service—and although my experiences have varied from place to place, the underlying character of business has become that much more clear with each new employer: degrade, divide, and exploit. Here, a higher pace of work, there, unsafe conditions, everywhere taciturn managers and absentee millionaire owners paying paltry wages.

There are over 13 million restaurant workers today in America. The overwhelming majority of these can never be certain about their paychecks, and as a consequence can budget their income—typically between $7.25 and $9 an hour—only with exceptional difficulty. However, while the take-home pay of such a worker in the course of a year is never going to be significantly more than $10,000 or at most $15,000—and probably less—the owners are raking in gigantic sums. Indeed, the average restaurant CEO collects 788 times that—about $12 million a year. In other words, you would have to work for 788 years to collect what your employer “earns” in a single year. 

These workers are essentially feeding America about half of its meals. Food is necessary for life, and in this fact lies the essential value of restaurant work. The situation with retail is not much different—low pay for the real producers, extraordinary pay for the owners who do nothing useful at all.

This situation—in which the people who feed us, clothe us, furnish our homes and so on, are compelled to live with barely any food, inferior clothes, and scant furniture and electronics, while their super-rich jet-setter bosses squander countless millions on creature comforts and idiotic fancies—is as natural to capitalism as police harassment, foreign invasions, and omnipresent advertisements.

The exploitation, abuse, and division of the workers is the very basis of capitalism, whose basic exploitation unit, the company, exists not to raise the standard of living of the working class, but to grow the profits for the handful of private owners, the capitalists.

If restaurant and retail workers ever hope to see a safe and decent work regime where we are respected, where our conditions of life and work are not sacrificed to the rich, where our social role is given its proper respect and due, and is not degraded, we will have to unite with the workers of all industries, against the capitalists of all industries, in a fight for a socialist revolution to destroy capitalism forever.


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