Opinion: A long history of collective struggle in Maine’s restaurant industry

It has been deeply inspiring to see the efforts of workers at Starbucks in Biddeford and Chipotle in Augusta to organize their workplaces in an industry known for its low wages and difficult work environment. But as these union campaigns have shown, companies will do everything possible to prevent employees from organizing, including firing organizers and shutting down the company in blatant violation of our weak labor laws.

High employee turnover rates in restaurants also make it difficult to maintain worker power to establish organizing committees and sustain it through the long process of getting workers to sign union cards, winning elections to the secret ballot and negotiate a contract, as employers often drag their feet until a year has passed and they can launch a decertification campaign. Employers will also exploit divisions between dining room and kitchen staff.

In 2020, the restaurant industry had one of the lowest rates of unionization of any industry in the United States – just 1.2%, compared to 10.8% of all wage earners and wage earners, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s why it’s so impressive that food service workers in Maine and across the country are winning union elections against all odds. But this isn’t the first time Maine restaurant workers have stood up and organized and it certainly won’t be the last.

A story of struggle

As early as the 1890s, restaurant and hospitality workers in Maine began to organize and form labor organizations known as “labor and benefits” orders, according to labor historian Charlie Scontras. . In 1919, members of the International Alliance of Hotel and Restaurant Employees and International Bartenders League of America (ICI) offices established in Augusta and Portland. Then, in 1928, the local Portland chapter brought HERE international president Edward Flore and an organizer to the city where they reportedly “met with good success, adding several new houses to the fair roster and strengthening the local chapter.” “.

Two years later, in 1930, the Portland Central Labor Union, a precursor to the Southern Maine Labor Council, funded an organizer to help establish a local HERE, but it did not survive “due to lack of interest in this class of workers. ”

However, labor activity in Maine increased dramatically with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which created the basic right of workers to organize, and the Maine State Federation of Labor (MSFL ), a forerunner of the Maine AFL-CIO, successfully convinced ICI to send another organizer. The Portland Teamsters even passed a resolution at the time refusing to patronize non-union restaurants in the city.

The main driver of organizing efforts in the 1930s was that wages were incredibly low and Maine still had no minimum wage law. Jesse W. Taylor, Commissioner of Labor and Industry of Maine, observed in 1939 that many workers in Maine’s restaurants and other female-dominated industries earned only $5 a week ($106 adjusted for inflation) for 54 to 64 hours of work. At the very least, Taylor argued that the state should establish a minimum wage law of 25 cents an hour for women and miners.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act did not cover restaurant workers, and Maine was one of the last New England states to pass a minimum wage law in 1959, but it still did not cover restaurant servers.

As today, wage theft and blacklist were very common in the restaurant industry. Taylor cited a case where a restaurant owner refused to pay a young woman who worked 72 hours in a week because, according to the employer, she was quitting her job.

“We had proof that it had worked over time. Restaurant books can be checked,” Taylor said. “She went to court and testified. It cost the employer $36 in court and she was blacklisted and couldn’t find a job anywhere in town. Violations have taken place elsewhere. They would like to go to court, but don’t dare.

Addressing the MSFL convention in 1954, Maine’s commissioner of labor lamented the state’s failure to pass minimum wage legislation and said workers had not come out to testify in large numbers because ‘they were probably afraid of losing their jobs.

HERE continued to support labor organizing campaigns throughout the 1950s, but the anti-union legal system unfortunately dampened the momentum. In 1954, workers established HERE Local 390 at Theodore’s Lobster House in Portland (later DiMillo’s Lobster House), which led to a court injunction prohibiting picketing of the establishment, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court from Maine. This blatant suppression of free speech prompted the labor movement to demand a state-level labor relations law to protect restaurant, hotel and retail workers, who were not covered. by federal labor laws.

At the 1954 MSFL convention, workers claimed the Portland Chamber of Commerce even sent letters “apparently asking all restaurants to keep labor organizations away from their doors.” The convention voted to remove Portland from its list of recommended convention sites in 1956 in solidarity with restaurant workers.

A HERE worker organizer in Portland noted that restaurant workers earned as little as 22 cents an hour and that the Eastland Hotel even levied “fines” on workers who “sometimes completely consume the weekly wage.” In a letter to a state legislator in 1965, the organizer wrote:

“The state of Maine is called ‘Vacationland’. A vacation country needs tourists and these tourists need accommodation. We, the hotel and restaurant workers, provide the necessary services for these accommodations. Yet we are the most neglected citizens of this state. We work 54 hours a week for as little as $0.25, $0.35 and $0.50 per hour.

Are we not as good citizens of our country as they are? Do we get paid less because we work in Maine? Because of a few who have the financial power… do we have to stay 65 years behind the rest of the country?

In the late 1970s, there was another resurgence of unionization in the restaurant industry. As one proponent of the organizing effort wrote in Maine Labor News:

“Would you like to work for exactly half the legal minimum wage?” Would you like overtime to be 46 hours rather than 40 hours per week? Would you like to work on a piecework system largely at the mercy of supervisors playing favorites?

Would you like to be sent home without pay because there is not “enough work” on your shift without compensation? Would you like to have no pension plan, no health benefits, no paid vacation or sick pay? If you enjoy the terms of such a job, you could work for a waitress or waiter job anywhere in the state.

Would you like to invest hundreds of dollars in a culinary arts trade school education only to find that you aren’t making enough money at work after graduation to pay for your education?

Would you like to wash dishes, clean motel rooms, scrub pots or bus tables for $2.30 an hour? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you may also be eligible for a job in the hotel or restaurant industry. »

The most successful union campaign of the 1970s took place on August 3, 1977 when servers, bartenders and kitchen staff at the Roundhouse Motor Inn in Auburn voted to form a union with HERE. In the 1980s, it was the only unionized restaurant in the state and unionized workers frequented it often, including holding meetings there during the 1987-88 International Paper Strike.

However, workers trying to organize the Portland Red Coach Grille and Convention Center in 1976 faced much tougher odds after the company fired a lead organizer, sparking a year of unfair labor practice complaints. , appeals, staff turnover and anti-union fights that resulted in a defeat for the union. With the anti-union climate of the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t until the 21st century that restaurant workers briefly began to organize again with the establishment of the Southern Maine Workers Center in the mid-2000s.

But given restaurant workers’ growing passion for collective action in the 2020s, perhaps we can expect to frequent more union restaurants and hotels in Maine in the near future!

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on Maine’s AFL-CIO Blog. Most of the information in this article was taken from the book “Maine Labor in the Age of Deindustrialization and Global Markets: 1955 – 2005” by Charles Scontras.

Photo: Corey Templeton | Creative Commons on Flickr


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Cecil N. Messick