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The Waitresses' Strike:

From Comraderie to Collective Bargaining

By Joyce Heard

WHEN YOU WAITRESS, you work for the tips, not the wage, because a dollar an hour is nothing to speak of. Very soon you learn to tell the tippers apart and you find out that there are only two types you can rely on: paunchy businessmen who tip because of your legs and former waitresses.

Many American women have waitressed at some time in their lives, and they don't forget the experience. Once you've waitressed, eating in a restaurant becomes a different experience. You walk into a place and you figure which stations are the best, you notice who is getting the big parties, and who has been assigned the slow sections. You know that if it's and odd hour like 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. that no one in the place is making more than $1 an hour in tips. You notice if the tables are placed so that the waitresses can walk around without bumping into each other. I notice that especially because I used to work at the Pewter Pot where the tables are so close together that I spilled two relish trays and several cups of coffee on customers.

THERE IS A KIND of comraderie between those who have waitressed, but unfortunately it has never extended much beyond the courtesy of former waitresses remembering to leave decent tips. The Harvard Square Waitresses Organizing Committee represents the first attempt in this area to go beyond sympathetic Comraderie. Twelve waitresses from Cronin's have organized to demand better pay, better working conditions and general recognition of waitressing as a decent job and not just a menial task assigned to willing women. Their attempt is something new and hopefully something that will grow.

Why didn't a waitressing union in the Square ever happen before? It seems like a logical extension of American unionism, yet there are some factors that have tended to discourage organization among waitresses.

First of all, waitressing is conceived as a temporary occupation. Most women who waitress do so for short periods of time, generally six months or less. Restaurant owners expect this and want this. They know that there will always be another girl willing to work for the low wage to replace the girl who has just left.

Both employers and employees conceive of waitressing as a temporary job. Employers expect that waitresses can put up with bad conditions such as long hours, low pay, no place to take breaks, carrying heavy trays, and being on their feet, because they won't have to do it for long.

THEY ALSO EXPECT waitresses to put up with it because they are women. One of woman's traditional roles is to bring man his food; in restaurants women get the added benefit of being paid to do this.

For me, as for most waitresses, the physical demands of the job and the bad attitudes surrounding the work gradually build up until the individual waitress quits, if she can afford it. I was lucky; I could go back to Radcliffe. Looking back I can pick out some of the worst incidents. One night, two guys came in, ordered two cups of coffee and twenty creams, and said. "We're on welfare; it's the cheapest nourishment we can get." They drank all the creams and built a little pyramid of empty creamer cups--with no tip underneath. Another night, I dropped a tray of Muffins on the floor, began to throw them all away, and found the manager scowling down at me, asking what I was doing. "Those muffins are perfectly good," he said.

And there was a guy who came in three times a night several times a week with a different pick-up and never left a tip. I finally told him my living depended on tips and would he mind using another restaurant to do his sex scouting? He left, but I was stepping out of place and was reprimanded by the manager. The only way we survived was by having muffin fights afterhours, which was not a very good solution to the problem.

HSWU AND THE STRIKE at Cronin's is a better way. Conditions at Cronin's are somewhat worse than at other restaurants in the Square. The waitresses' union began at Cronin's before Thanksgiving last year, according to Patty Welch, one of the waitresses. The waitresses started meeting informally and talking about working at Cronin's and what kind of changes they would like to see made. Twelve of the 15 waitresses presented their demands to James D. Cronin, the owner of the restaurant, at the beginning of December. He refused to consider them and on December 9 the waitresses walked out of Cronin's. "At that time we didn't have a definite idea of what we were going to do once we walked out," Welch said, "but we knew we were going to leave if Cronin didn't do anything with our demands."

When he did nothing, the waitresses decided to form a union and they asked Cronin to recognize them as authorized bargaining agents for waitresses at the restaurant. Although 12 out of 15 waitresses at the restaurant had signed authorization slips giving HSWU authority to bargain for them, Cronin refused to recognize the union.

The waitresses picketed for four days and Cronin changed his mind. According to Welch, Cronin's lawyers advised him against signing a legal agreement recognizing HSWOC as the sole bargaining agent for waitresses at his restaurant, but he refused their advice. The waitresses' strike was really cutting down his business in just four short days.

FOLLOWING RECOGNITION of the Union, picketing stopped temporarily and negotiating sessions began between Cronin and his lawyers and the waitresses and their lawyers.

The HSWU demands throughout the strike include the following:

* A wage increase of 25 cents per hour from $1.10 per hour to $1.35 per hour

* graduated pay raises for waitresses who work six months or more

* sick pay and health insurance

* paid vacations for waitresses working one year or more

* overtime pay of time and a half for work beyond a 40-hour week

* exemption from paying for walk outs (at Cronin's if a customer walks out without paying the bill, the waitress is responsible)

* uniforms provided and paid for by Cronin

* 15 per cent of the bill added on for service instead of voluntary tipping.

* The waitresses' demands are not unreasonable and they are essential if waitressing is to become a dignified public service instead of just a menial, underpaid job reserved only for women who will take the job for short periods of time until they wear out and are replaced.

DURING THE NEGOTIATIONS Cronin insisted that he could not afford to pay the waitresses more Cronin refused all the above demands, agreeing only to end custodial duties for waitresses, such as cleaning the bathrooms, provide a place for the waitresses to sit down (although he refused to agree to scheduled breaks), and increase pay for seniority.

Although Cronin refused to agree to the most important demands of the waitresses, he never presented any counter-proposals himself, creating an impasse which ended negotiations in January. The waitresses decided to strike again on January 28.

Following the waitresses' decision to strike, Cronin asked for and received a temporary restraining order enjoining the waitresses and their agents from conducting obstructive picketing. Several waitresses and their supporters were charged with obstructive picketing under the injunction, but the charges were later dropped following a Superior Court decision not to renew Cronin's restraining order.

The only charge which remains is one contempt charge from the original hearing.

Since January 28, the waitresses and their supporters have been picketing Cronin's daily, except for a brief period when the restraining order was in effect. The waitresses estimate that they have cut down Cronin's business, at least at the restaurant (Cronin's is also a bar), by about 85 per cent. During the strike no new negotiations have been conducted.

Lawyers for the waitresses have approached Cronin several times to ask him to agree to arbitration and a mediator. He has refused such offers and has refused to comment about the situation.

According to Kathy Allen and Steven Dominic, lawyers for the waitresses, a state mediator has been appointed to discuss the case with both sides, but Cronin has so far refused to speak to the mediator.

The waitresses would like to begin new negotiations, since the prolonged strike is becoming financially costly both to the Union and to Cronin's.

Today the waitresses will present Cronin with a letter requesting new negotiations and outlining seven conditions that Cronin must agree to before negotiations can begin again.

The letter states that during the two-month strike there have been misunderstandings on both sides and that both sides will have to make a new effort to come together.

The waitresses also deny charges recently made by Cronin that the Union has been responsible for telephone threats made to one of the waitresses who is still working at the restaurant.

The new letter lists the following prerequisites for negotiations:

* Cronin must give the Union written notifications of contract items already agreed upon.

* Cronin must agree to a base wage of $1.35 per hour with raises left open to negotiation.

* Cronin must agree to provide health insurance to waitresses who work over 30 hours per week with at least half the cost of the insurance paid by the restaurant.

* Waitresses must no longer be responsible for customers who walk out without paying their bills.

* All Waitresses who have been fired since the start of the strike must be reinstated and all charges against them dropped.

* Cronin must agree to either add 15 per cent of the bill onto the bill as a service charge or to post signs saying that tips constitute half a waitress's salary and that a 15 per cent tip is expected at the restaurant.

The major concession made by the waitresses in this offer is on tipping.

Cronin had not received the letter as of publication time so he could not comment on it. The waitresses are hoping that even if Cronin is unwilling to accept the letter as a basis for new negotiations, that, at least he will offer some counter-proposals. During the picketing HSWU has received strong support from many groups including: Women for Action Against Sexism, the Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee, the University Action Group. Students for a Democratic Society, United Radical Political Economists, Radical Lesbians, and the Adams House Collective. Support from individuals as well as members of these groups has enabled the fledgling union to keep picket lines going and support their strike fund.

Members of the Union decided early in the strike not to affiliate with the only local service workers union AFL-CIO Local 277, because it is not an agressive union in bargaining for its members, and according to Welch, many of its present members are dissatisfied with it.

At present the HSWU struggle is centered around Cronin's. There are members of the Union from other restaurants but the Union has out of necessity decided to focus on Cronin's. Waitresses from other restaurants have not so far been able to contribute much to the picketing effort since most of them work at restaurants during picketing hours.

HSWU HAS THE PICKETING support, the legal expertise, and strike fund behind their small but determined union that will enable the waitresses to perpetuate the Cronin's strike.

For the 12 waitresses who have existed without jobs since they began the strike, Cronin's must be the immediate goal, but the waitresses also look forward to a day when all the restaurants in the Square will be organized, and waitressing will become a legitimate and secure occupation, not just a shit job

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