Let’s face it: Asheville doesn’t offer the world’s best selection of career opportunities, unless your idea of a dream job is being a chef or a server. Good old manufacturing, long the backbone of the Southern economy, is rapidly going the way of the buffalo and cheap gas. Instead, what’s emerging in this city is a constantly shifting service work force. Like New York City, Asheville is becoming one of those magnets that attracts young people in droves, many of whom end up working in restaurants for much longer than they’d planned. But one key difference between working in a cafe here and one in the Big Apple is that New York City restaurant workers have a union and a cooperative; we’ve got leaf season and the good will of our employers.
That’s not to say that working in a restaurant here is bad. We don’t need a union in the way that, say, turn-of-the-century coal miners did. We’re usually treated fairly, and we make enough money to live on. But it’s easy to get stuck waiting tables for years in this town, and it’s exactly this “stuckness” that makes the need for a union so real. Most restaurant workers either don’t have access to health insurance at all or can’t afford the high rates. Asheville is getting to be a pretty expensive place to live, and most of us don’t have an extra $100-plus a month to pay for insurance. Besides, at all but a handful of restaurants, things like paid vacation and 401(k) plans are out of the question. And when you’re making $2.13 an hour, time-and-a-half doesn’t really count for much: Servers can work 60 hours a week with no real overtime compensation to speak of. Employers, meanwhile, can fire their employees for whatever reason they want — because North Carolina is an “at will” state — and generally with few repercussions (other than the occasional discrimination lawsuit).
Another big issue is what happens to waiters and waitresses in a crisis. The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York is a co-op that advocates for workers’ security and rights. It was formed after the 9/11 attacks, which eventually left 13,000 restaurant employees without work due to displacement, cleanup efforts and a decrease in tourism. Obviously, what we saw here with hurricanes Frances and Ivan was not as bad as that, but it did put many people out of work for as much as a week, since most restaurants lost their water and had to close. Some restaurant staffers, such as those who worked in Biltmore Village, lost their jobs for a lot longer. Servers generally live day to day, and a lot of them needed money right then. “Thank God this didn’t happen at the end of the month!” one of my friends exclaimed, referring to the time when rent and bills come due. For those of us who lost work due to Ivan and Frances, there was no immediate safety net.
A union could change some of the above, if its leadership kept a few things in mind. First and foremost is that unionizing a corporate chain and unionizing a small, independently owned restaurant are two very different things. Most chains provide some kind of health insurance for senior employees, but in my experience, very few of them take advantage of it. Servers who make $2.13 an hour, and whose two-week paychecks are often less than $20, simply can’t afford to have more than $100 a month withheld from their pay — they would end up owing money on payday! A union would negotiate either a higher hourly rate of pay or a much lower employee contribution for insurance. It would not send the corporate chains into financial ruin if they were forced to provide these things. Right now, though, the law does not require them to, so they don’t.
Independent restaurants are a whole different story. Whereas most chains are slow to provide insurance because they’re mostly concerned about the bottom line, independent restaurant owners tend to work right alongside their employees. In Asheville, these owners are a remarkable group of people, and most of them would love to be able to provide insurance for their employees. One owner who used to provide health insurance for all her employees at no cost to them (which seems unimaginable for servers and cooks these days), told me that rising costs had kept whittling down the amount she could afford to pay until she couldn’t even cover the mandatory 50 percent (state law requires employers to pay at least half of their employee’s medical insurance, if they provide it at all). Most of her employees were forced to drop their insurance, because they couldn’t afford it either. Given the enormous tax burden that small businesses in general face today, and the high overhead costs that restaurants have, there’s simply no way they can take on 50 percent of their employees’ health-insurance costs, which have become outrageous.
What we need is an organization that would negotiate either more affordable insurance rates or higher hourly wages for restaurant employees. The same organization could help the independent-restaurant community form a single plan that both owners and employees would have a say in. It’s worth mentioning that the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, which is made up solely of restaurant owners, is trying to collaborate on a plan like this, but so far, nothing has come of it. An employee-based organization could also operate in the political arena, lobbying against food-and-beverage tax hikes (as AIRA famously did last year) and for tax breaks for small restaurants, and also endorsing political candidates who pledge to lower small-business taxes and provide universal health care.
If properly organized and managed, a union could accomplish all these things without striking or otherwise disrupting business. But a union would be possible only if every restaurant worker in Asheville were ready to mobilize, and that could take some time. More practical right now would be to follow the example of ROC NY. The members of this restaurant workers’ co-op, mostly immigrants, pay a very small monthly fee in exchange for a job-placement service and basic representation that makes sure they’re being treated fairly in the workplace.
An Asheville restaurant co-op could provide the same services, as well as job training and even a translation service for our own growing immigrant population. It could negotiate on behalf of all restaurant employees and help uninsured members of the restaurant community get coverage.
So why don’t we have one?
[Freelance writer and bartender Sam Wardle lives in Asheville with his wife.]