Alia Todd (left) with coworker Hayley Ingram.
Last fall, I asked the president a question: What else could be done to help restaurant workers like me as we organize for better standards?
I didn’t know if he would even see it. Then, on the evening of Oct. 7, my phone began to ding with text messages from friends and family while I was at work. The White House had hosted a Summit on Worker Voice that day, and President Obama had answered my question.
Here’s why I asked it.
I am a restaurant worker. I have been a server, bartender and pastry chef in restaurants around the Southeast for 18 years. For the past five years, I’ve been employed by Tupelo Honey Cafe. I am also a workers’ rights organizer. In many ways, restaurant workers are the new face of America’s working class. The restaurant industry in my home state of North Carolina is growing fast, but the 340,000 workers here who prepare and serve food are paid some of the lowest wages in the state and receive few or no earned benefits.
That includes bussers/back servers, who are an essential part of any well organized and profitable restaurant. They provide support and heightened efficiency, allowing wait staff to give personal and professional service. In 2014, Tupelo Honey Cafe chose to cut wages for these support staff from $5.15 to $2.13, the federal minimum for tipped employees.
I and many of my fellow coworkers were unhappy about the changes. Some of these support staff could no longer pay the bills or keep food on the table. And a lack of information from management had a negative effect on morale. When the only response we received from management was, essentially, “It’s out of our hands,” I knew that the only way to make real change was to stand up together for higher wages.
So in 2015, I launched a campaign on Coworker.org asking my employer to reinstate wages for support staff in all of their locations across the Southeast to their original levels.
I started the campaign because I love being a Tupelo Honey Cafe employee. The company started as a small, home-grown cafe in downtown Asheville, and over the past 15 years, it has grown into a very successful regional chain with 12 locations and plans to expand westward. They have many practices that are above industry standards − and that’s why I was so alarmed when they cut support staff wages last year.
I am glad the company continues to grow and expand, but I don’t believe that should come at the expense of employees at the bottom of the chain. My hope with this campaign was that they would recommit to being the company I believe in and love working for. And I wasn’t alone: By October, more than 100 Tupelo Honey Cafe employees had signed onto the campaign and we had over 1,200 signatures.
This set the stage for my question to President Obama, which was read aloud by Coworker.org’s co-founder Michelle Miller at the Worker Voice summit: What else could be done to help restaurant workers like me as we organize for better standards?
Here’s how he answered:
“I think the restaurant industry is an example where a lot of federal law did not reach into restaurants the way they should − which is why, for example, waiters and waitresses and how tips were treated was oftentimes substandard... And it's not likely − I'm going to be honest − that during the remainder of my presidency Congress passes laws to raise standards for restaurant workers … But the kind of work that Alia is doing and some of you describe of creating new norms and social pressures at the local level with employers and with customers is a really powerful tool.”
As a restaurant worker and a workers’ rights organizer, it’s incredible to hear the president tell you that the work you’re doing is powerful. That moment motivated me to see the campaign through.
As of today, Tupelo Honey Cafe has raised the wages of support staff in their downtown Asheville, Raleigh and Virginia Beach locations back to $5.15 per hour. I’m incredibly proud of the success of this campaign and more than ever, I am convinced of the power working people have when they stand up and work together to demand more.
Low wages are just one reason restaurant workers need more of a voice so that they can achieve economic security. Employment benefits are very rare in my state: 4 out of 5 North Carolina restaurant workers lack access to paid sick days. Without any state or federal law requiring employers to provide paid sick days, taking time off to recover from illness or to care for a sick child usually means losing a day’s pay − a budget breaker for low‐income workers who live paycheck to paycheck.
New tools like Coworker.org − where any employee can launch a campaign to make their workplace better − are changing the way workers come together. It provides a much needed, and lacking, balance for workers. When it comes to workers’ rights, I believe we have to take power and create voice – those things are not handed to us.
Food service activism is on the rise, though addressing workplace conditions within the restaurant industry is a fairly new phenomenon. My hope is that our small victory is one of thousands of small victories that ultimately will change the way workers view their ability to speak up and shape their working conditions.
Alia Todd is an employee at Tupelo Honey Cafe.
Editor’s note: The following has been shared from Medium. You can view the original here.