‘We’ve Been Made to Think We Are Replaceable’

Panel discussion at SICK

'We've Been Made to Think We Are Replaceable'

Exhausted by the pandemic, bosses, and patrons, local restaurant workers begin to band together.

by jesse fox mayshark • december 22, 2021

Panel discussion at SICK

Sylvia scull of Service industry coalition of Knoxville, center, leads a panel discussion at Central collective.

Sylvia Scull has worked in restaurant kitchens for her entire adult life. She is accustomed to the industry’s high stress, odd hours and high turnover rate. But COVID-19 changed some things, or at least her willingness to tolerate them.

COVID-19 has led to a nationwide surge of activism by restaurant employees.

“My last job, which is a local restaurant that promotes this idea of caring about its employees and blah blah blah, even they got pushed,” said Scull, who is one of the founders of Service Industry Coalition Knoxville (SICK), a group that came together to support workers affected by the pandemic. “A lot of employees felt unsafe, we were being forced to fill our restaurant when it wasn’t safe to do so.”

From management, she said, “It was just a lot of virtue signaling, a lot of pretending to care.”

SICK aims to connect people who do care about restaurant and other service industry employees, and to encourage workers to stand up for themselves and each other.

“​​The whole idea is for us to try and promote worker solidarity, specifically within the service industry but not limited to the service industry,” Scull said during an interview last week at the Central Collective event space. SICK held a Community & Resource Day there on Dec. 14, inviting service workers to meet local labor representatives and learn about accessible healthcare options and other services.

Scull acknowledged the turnout was modest, but several dozen people came through over the course of the day, many of them representing other local community organizations. 

“We all know how hard it is to get people out to advocate for themselves, it’s extremely difficult,” Scull said. “Everyone who works in the service industry is very dismal, doesn't think anything can change, is kind of beaten down like a dog. So we wanted to host this event to kind of be casual, not too abrasive, about advocating for solidarity.”

It also gave the Knoxville organizers the opportunity to meet counterparts from the other end of the state — three members of a group called Memphis Restaurant Workers United drove over to participate and share their experiences.

“We’ve been made to think we are replaceable for a long time,” said Lily Nicholson, one of the Memphis organizers. “We never have been, but we’ve been made to think that. But we can’t buy that anymore. This is an industry that was disproportionately affected by the virus.”

Support in a Crisis

Like the Memphis group, SICK came together in the early days of the pandemic to provide support for workers who had lost their jobs or were being told to work in unsafe conditions. The first effort was crowdsourced fundraising in early 2020 to help workers with emergency expenses.

“COVID brought out the absolute worst in the restaurant industry,” Scull said. “People really realized the lengths that they are (considered) disposable, even your health. That was something that for a lot of people was really hard to grasp.”

Another of the resource day’s offerings reflected other unpleasant realities: training in the use of Narcan to treat a person who has overdosed on opioids. It’s something service workers could encounter with either patrons or coworkers, Scull said.

Both nascent Tennessee groups have had support and encouragement from Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, a national nonprofit organization that helps restaurant workers learn about and assert their rights.

Teofilo Reyes, ROC United’s chief program officer, said in a phone interview that the group has seen a surge of interest from workers across the country since the pandemic hit.

ROC United formed in the wake of another crisis, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The group arose from efforts among New York City service workers to support employees and families of those who worked at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Its efforts have broadened in the 20 years since, but particularly in the past 18 months.

“It really expanded with COVID,” Reyes said. “Because on the one hand you had restaurants closed down, dining rooms closed, so people were kicked out of work. On the other hand, if you were in the kitchen you were labeled an essential worker, meaning you were forced to come into work.”

As restaurants reopened, host and wait staff were often charged with enforcing COVID protocols including mask mandates and social distancing, leading to confrontations with resistant patrons.

“And on top of this, we already had the lowest wages and among the most difficult working conditions,” Reyes said. “Restaurant workers don't have paid sick days. If you say you’re sick and you can't come into work, you’re afraid you’re going to get fired. We've surveyed restaurant workers and about 1 in 10 had to go to work with COVID symptoms because they were afraid of losing their job.”

In maybe the most high-profile recent restaurant organizing, workers at a company-owned Starbucks store in Buffalo, N.Y., voted to unionize earlier this month. 

Highlighting the Bad, Celebrating the Good

Neither ROC United nor SICK are unions, although they help educate employees about basic labor rights — for example, that even employees in non-unionized workplaces can’t be fired for participating in “concerted activity” with coworkers to raise concerns about working conditions.

Memphis Restaurant Workers United has an associate membership with UFCW Local 1529, which represents grocery store, healthcare and other service workers. Nicholson said unionizing individual restaurants is difficult because it’s a transient industry made up of both large chains and small businesses. So the group is focused instead on industry-wide organizing in Memphis, encouraging people to become dues-paying union members even if their workplace isn’t unionized.

Allan Creasy, another Memphis organizer, said the organization is already using social media to both recognize good employers and bring attention to worker complaints about problematic ones.

“It’s not just finding the bad actors, it’s celebrating the good actors as well,” he said. “There are restaurant employers who are doing better by their employees. The idea is to come to them and say, let’s put pen to paper and let’s celebrate you.”

He said the group is on the verge of signing its first union contract with a Memphis restaurant that supports workers’ rights.

In Knoxville, SICK organizers are planning to establish themselves as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and to create a local chapter of ROC United.

“When we have a more centralized organization, it will make people feel better about having a voice in this city when it comes to their rights as a worker,” said Jazmin Witherspoon, another SICK organizer.

Among the other groups represented at the Dec. 14 event were Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), SEEED, Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Socialists of America.

June Rostan, vice president of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Central Labor Council, imparted some observations from her years of organizing. And a panel discussion included Three Rivers Market employee Andreas Bastias, who helped lead a successful unionization effort at the food co-operative.

“We're programmed to think, ‘All right, this is me, and I have my skills, and I go find the best deal that I can get,’” Bastias said, emphasizing the instability of a workforce accustomed to switching jobs frequently.  “And I think increasingly, we're starting to think, ‘Well, if we stick around and listen to each other, we can actually change the conditions for all of us.’”

Reyes said with employers across the country struggling to attract enough staff and national attention focused on labor issues more than in recent memory, restaurant workers have an unusual opportunity now to make their case for better pay and working conditions.

“The industry has what's called monopsony power, which means they keep wages artificially low, below what the market would normally demand,” Reyes said. “Right now they can't do that. And so this is the time in which workers need to respond.”