The IWW’s 2022 Organizing Summit took place in Chicago, IL over the first weekend in October. The Organizing Department Board (ODB) asked me to facilitate a workshop about working for tips and after a few back and forth brainstorming messages, we decided on the title “The Tipping Point: Workplace Competition and the Undermining of Solidarity.” I’ve been working in restaurants (both front and back of house) for 25 years now and am about to celebrate my 10 year IWW anniversary, so I of course have lots of thoughts on the subject. But I was also curious about what other fellow workers had to say, so I came up with some spiels and anecdotes to set the tone, but also came prepared with plenty of discussion questions to toss at the group.
I started off the session by asking the room, “Does anybody know where the practice of tipping comes from?” A couple hands went up. Some workers chimed in about how in the US, freed slaves had gone on to do hospitality work and instead of working for wages from their employers they were allowed to receive tips from guests. Servants (now called “servers”) earn a slightly higher hourly rate these days, but tips still make up a majority of their income. “So what sort of power dynamics does this create between workers and customers?” I asked. “What about between coworkers? Between workers and bosses?”
Tipping has all sorts of side effects on the workplace and I would need to write a whole article (maybe even a book) to list them all, but some of the main points I wanted to hit on are that it obfuscates the power dynamics between workers and bosses and helps create a state of constant interpersonal surveillance in the restaurant. Whenever you look at old class war propaganda, the enemy is always a capitalist in a tuxedo and top hat: the rich business owner. In 2022 however, the enemy is portrayed as a woman with a choppy lopsided haircut: a “Karen.” A customer. We don’t even talk about bosses anymore. It’s like they’re completely out of the picture and definitely out of the minds of a lot of workers. And because customers are more in control of our pocket books than our bosses, it can lead workers to feel like they have to accept inappropriate and degrading behavior in order to make sure that we get paid at the end of each meal. It can also cause tension between front of house and back of house workers because servers have a vested interest in trying to enforce time standards on the kitchen to ensure that food is served promptly. In short, tipping creates a work environment where we are all at each other’s throats constantly while the bosses are often nowhere to be seen.
So what do we do with this information? We know as organizers that in order to force economic concessions from employers, we need to be able to exercise economic leverage. And that often entails a high degree of organization. And the reality of the situation is that many of our campaigns in restaurants are in the early stages, where they haven’t reached the point of being able to pull off big strikes or other costly concerted actions. Abolishing tipping has been a goal of the IWW for decades and should continue to be, but if we don’t have leverage for it now then we should start talking about what it will take to get there.
I transitioned to the next part of the discussion by sharing a personal story from a restaurant I worked at in the early 2000s, about a decade before I joined the IWW. At the time, I was working as a cook and dishwasher in a chain restaurant and I was also a cigarette smoker. The company started coming up with all sorts of arbitrary rules, one of which was to ban smoke breaks during shifts. Prior to the ban, the cooks would smoke cigarettes out by the dumpster when we took out the trash after the dinner rush. Even though smoking was now forbidden, we were still required to do garbage duty so a few of us came up with a system where we would each take a bag or two, smoke a cigarette outside and then other cooks would take out another bag or two so they could have an excuse to be outside. And then we would “accidentally” forget one or two bags at the end for the dishwasher. This way, everyone still got a smoke break despite corporate policy saying we couldn’t.
I told the group that this is an example of what some wobblies and other radicals have called “the informal work group.” Informal work groups tend to pop up almost organically in most, if not every, workplace. Bosses try to shape every aspect of the job and groups of workers will collectively defy that control and try to shape the workplace to their own liking. Because we’ve been so conditioned by the government-sanctioned labor relations system, we tend to overlook these activities but nonetheless they are bodies of working class organization and a means of waging struggle on the shop floor. Informal work groups socialize when and where bosses tell us not to, they perform their jobs to their own liking despite what the handbook or contract says.
A pamphlet called “Abolish Restaurants” has an excerpt about this:
“The glue that holds these informal work groups together is a struggle against the work. When we joke around when we’re supposed to be working, or shit-talk the boss, or cut corners to make the work easier, or steal from work together, we create trust, complicity, and a culture of watching out for each other. This community of struggle cuts into profit-making, but it also tends to break down the divisions and hierarchies created by the production process. It is the basis for any broader fight against management.”
I asked the group if anyone had examples of informal work groups in their workplace or in their experience.
One wobbly talked about workers who swapped shifts with each other. If a coworker was scheduled by the boss and had somewhere else to be, another worker would work their shift for them and vice versa. “And what is the issue they are trying to solve?” I asked. “The scheduling isn’t fair and the boss has total control over it” was the response. “So what could be a more confrontational action with a clearer objective?” I asked. After some conversation a wobbly suggested that the group could write their own schedule and hand it to the boss as a group, maybe as part of a march on the boss.
Another wobbly shared a story about working in a hot kitchen. The owner kept a shelf of Gatorade which was for sale and which had a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign in front of it. One day it got too hot and a worker uncapped a Gatorade bottle and started drinking it. Another worker followed suit. In no time, taking free Gatorade had become a daily practice. “So what could be a more confrontational action with a clearer objective?” I asked. Another march on the boss was suggested, this time with a demand letter that the owner provide Gatorade for the staff. It wouldn’t be a huge shift from the way things were currently happening, but it would show workers that it’s okay to go on the offensive to get what we want. We also had a brief discussion about stealing and why workers do it. A lot of times, we steal from the boss because they steal from us in the form of profit and exploitation. But stealing is also a passive act and can potentially get us into legal trouble. We can flip the script here by asking workers why they are stealing and turn that into a demand that bosses give us the things we need and want.
The tipping system causes myriad divisions in the workplace. Informal work groups begin to undo those divisions but our job as revolutionaries is to turn passive resistance into collective actions with clear demands. It will take some time before we are able to do away with tipping altogether, but we can build towards that by learning to fight and win. By taking on smaller issues and showing our coworkers that victory is possible, we can build the confidence and strength to take on bigger fights and achieve bigger victories.
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