June 25, 2013

Restaurant Organizing in the 1930’s and Today

During the Great Depression, restaurant workers were some of the most exploited workers in Canada. Recent immigrants were most likely to be hired. The struggles of these times are an important lesson as workers struggle today for higher wages, including raising the minimum wage.  For other articles we are running this week about minimum wage, click here.

By Peter Miller

In 1931, restaurant workers earnings in Canada, per week, were on average only 41 percent of the wage estimated for a decent living. Wages were low, hours brutal, and working conditions abysmal. The conditions of restaurant workers suffered with the large amount of unemployed workers during the global economic crisis, known as the "Great Depression."  From the 1930s until the Second World War, the Great Depression created a vast 'surplus army of labour' which the capitalists used to increase exploitation and profits.

Industrial food

In the 1930’s restaurants were becoming factories. A lot of equipment for increasing speed of production of meals was already developed by then, including dishwashers, meat slicers, and potato peeler machines. Restaurant owners were starting to emphasize efficiency, portion control, and standardization like we see today in fast food restaurants.

Anyone who has worked for Burger King or McDonalds can tell you that management emphasizes speed a great deal, with workers getting heat from management if they do not produce food within a certain time frame.

Management at fast food joints today also don’t like to see workers giving consumers any extra fries, or even extra ketchup on burgers. Portion control, speed of service, standardization, and the ability to give out poverty wages with impunity are all that matters for the bosses of Fast Food.


The Food Workers Industrial Union of Canada, an affiliate of the Worker’s Unity League, formed in 1934 and began organizing restaurant workers right away.  The Food Workers Industrial Union of Canada (an affiliate of the WUL) organized twenty-one locals in 1934 in every major city in Canada.

In Toronto alone there were three locals comprising all workers in 30 restaurants in the city. The Financial Post stated that unionization of restaurant workers was “being duplicated in hundreds of restaurants across Canada.”

The Worker’s Unity League organized workers according to industry -- not craft, skill or trade -- in an era of craft unionism. The League was a huge threat to employers with this strategy because WUL locals could more easily go on strike and shut entire workplaces down.

By 1935, the WUL had a membership of over 40,000 members

Strike action

Labour disputes between restaurant workers affiliated with the WUC and their bosses often were over workers objecting to a 7-day work week of 10 to 12 hour days.

In February 1934 workers walked out of Preston Lunch in Toronto, demanding the recognition of their union, and demanding their 84 hour a week job be shortened to 54 hours a week for waiters and 60 hours a week for other employees.

At the Blue Goose Café at Vancouver in September 1933 workers walked out for better pay. Meanwhile, at the Carlton Tea Room workers joined the WUL but the boss used the American Federation of Labour to try to smash the more militant union. Worker’s fought hard though.

In May, three employees that were fired for insubordination and picketed the workplace during the spring and summer months of 1934. They received an injunction, but still picketed, were thrown in jail, but when released came back to picket more while aided at times by demonstrations of over 100 people. While the outcome of this strike is not reported, by August 17 people had been arrested during the dispute with mass demonstrations still going strong.

United action vs. class collaboration

Mr. Sims, the WUL General Secretary in 1934 described the League by saying: “We believe in united action to organize workers to be ready to fight. The A.F. of L. (American Federation of Labour - RY) believes in depending on the good sense of the boss. We don’t do that.

Depending on the good sense of the boss never gets you anywhere. The A. F. of L. believes that the worker and the boss can get along together if they have the right sort of agreement. We don’t believe that. All that the working class has got and will get is through showing a united front.”

Today we are in a similar situation, so using a similar philosophy and approach as the Worker’s Unity League had in 1930’s: that workers must be united, militant, and never trusting of their greedy corporate bosses.

Lessons for today

Today, restaurant service workers face poverty wages. Right now, working full time at minimum wage in Ontario puts workers 19% below the poverty line. Workers are also lucky if they get full time hours. In fast food restaurants like Burger King, employees usually receive shifts of only three or four hours at a time, and on average employees work less than 35 hours a week.

In Ontario, the amount of workers that make minimum wage has almost doubled between 2000 and 2009.  The result is that more and more workers are deciding between food and rent, and having to take two precarious, part-time jobs to try to make ends meet. As workers are fighting for dignity in the workplace, the fast food industry is enjoying huge profits and is a $200 billion industry.

Walmart struggle

In the United States, there has been some recent success in organizing Fast Food workers and workers at Walmart (as reported in the latest print edition of Rebel Youth, Winter 2013). On April 4, the second strike in the ongoing Fast Food Forward campaign for higher wages and union recognition happened in New York with hundreds of workers walking off the job.

Last November, fast food workers in New York City took part in an historic strike to demand $15 an hour and the right to join the union without intimidation. Since then, the movement’ s numbers have grown. Organizing efforts are happening in other major cities like Chicago.

During black Friday last year in the United States, Walmart workers walked off the job in 28 stores, in 12 different states. They protested Walmart’s practice of silencing workers that speak out for better working conditions.  The OUR Walmart campaign is what inspired workers to organize fast food restaurants throughout the states.

Campaign for a living wage

In Ontario, a coalition of groups including the Ontario Coalition against Poverty and the Worker’s Action Centre in Toronto is coming together to build a campaign for a living wage of 14 dollars an hour.  Demands are that the minimum wage should be a living wage set at 10% above the poverty line; the minimum wage should be calculated based on a 35-hour week; and the minimum wage should be updated every year with the cost of living.

Young Communist League members are working on this campaign on the ground, especially in Guelph and Hamilton.  The YCL's perspective is that the campaign must develop into a broader effort, including joining efforts with organizing the unorganized -- like unionising the workers that receive poverty wages in Ontario -- and other social reforms like a shorter work week with no loss in pay, another of the many demands made by the WUL.

As victories are won, more and more workers realize their power collectively, and that a injury to one is an injury to all. These are important lessons that ultimately point towards the necessity of abolishing the capitalist system based on exploitation of people and nature, and for socialism.

Information about the Workers Unity League’s organizing of restaurant workers was gathered from Ester Reiter’s book Making Fast Food: from the Flying Pan into the Flyer.  Readers interested in the WUL can also read Raising the Workers' Flag: The Workers' Unity League of Canada, 1930-1936 by Stephen L. Endicott, University of Toronto Press, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular stories