11.16.12 | Transblog
“Look, this isn’t fast food,” our waitress barked at us.
“No. I get that but it’s been over an hour since we finished appetizers. I’m just . . . could you check on our food?”
Our waitress looked at us exhausted then turned a lazy eye over the empty dining room. “Look the kitchen is three flights down…”
It was Restaurant Week in New York. A Holy Week. The restaurants you can rarely afford offer special tasting menus for half- price. The day was tarnished by a lunch that ran so long my friend had to leave before our main-course even arrived. I re-told the afternoons encounter that evening at the restaurant where I’ve been waiting tables for more than 2 years.
“Can you imagine?! We’d get fired for talking like that to a table!”
“Yeah, I heard that restaurant has a union,” my friend replied.
“Wait – what? A union? Restaurants have unions? That can’t be good.”
Meanwhile on the Upper East Side, an emergent swarm was forming: 23 immigrant bakery workers did what no one expected. The New York City restaurant chain, Hot and Crusty, closed its Upper East Side location when owners feared workers were forming a union. The bakers, some working for the company for the better part of a decade, were fed up with sub-minimum-wage compensation, chronic wage theft, and constant intimidation. They took action! With lessons they learned at the Laundry Workers Center (an organization that provides support for workplace justice) they organized, occupied the bakery, picketed, and even created their own sidewalk café in front of the closed restaurant. It worked! By week’s end the new owners agreed to re-open the bakery, recognize their union, and give the workers control over all new hires. I’ve always thought of unions as creating bad workers, like the waitress, sluggish, not worried in the slightest about her job security as she has no need to be. In contrast to her, the bakery workers wanted to work hard and be fairly compensated for it. They organized from the bottom up, gained ownership over their workplace, and corrected an unjust situation.
So where’s the sweet spot? How can you create and sustain a bottom-up workplace that treats its employees fairly but doesn’t create a slovenly work force?
In most restaurants that I’ve worked, I’ve received below minimum wage from my employer and the majority of my wages comes from tips. The better I perform, the more I know about the food, the better service I provide, the more money I make. This system regulates itself: I work hard and I am rewarded. And thankfully, by New York City law, how tips are divvied out at the end of the night can only be controlled by the wait staff not the management. This system also works to self-regulate performance.
In the days after Hurricane Sandy, many friends in the industry were out of work for weeks and trying to get unemployment was a hassle. It got me thinking on how you could create a “local security, would a self-regulated pool of money work? You could put a little money in every week, investing in your own restaurant (like a 401K), and if you decide to leave the company you get the money back. If the restaurant has to unexpectedly close for a week, you share out the money amongst the staff. If you get sick and can’t work, you borrow the money from the pool and pay it back when you’re better. Or is there a better way? What would happen if you scaled this up to include all bars and restaurants in the Lower East Side? Bigger pool of money, investing in local businesses, bigger safety net. How would it work so that it could regulate itself without having to pay someone to manage it? Absolute transparency would be essential. Who’s borrowing money and why? Where is the money being invested and what is the rate of interest? Connecting the people directly to a support net and supporting the local businesses in the community. It could live online with no need for a “brick and mortar” infrastructure. The holes in this idea are obvious. However, all the restaurants in lower Manhattan were affected by the storm, if this was to happen again, the pool of money would be gone – shared out to all that were affected. – This is a problem of location, you make one location node too powerful, and when that node is affected, the whole system falls apart. But if you scale-up this idea to create a non-location based network, then it includes too many people, loses the sense of community that helps to self-regulate, and pool of money becomes more like an insurance company that people would take advantage of. This now as Horst Rittle put it a “Wicked Problem” and need of more Transdiciplinary design solutions.