They are part of our equipment
indispensible as our aprons,
our expensive well-made work clogs
and our smiles (mostly real, but often feigned);
:the wrist braces
the tiger balm
the icy hot patches
the ankle braces
and knee braces
and the kingsized bottles of ibuprofen
we share these supplies,
freely with each other whenever someone is in need
we have all been there.
Once, during a busy summer waitressing shift,
I balanced an entire table’s worth of dishes
atop a hard-shell wrist brace,
and waited for the patrons to decide on a dessert.
They insisted I not go away, they simply had to order right then
And while two debated between the sundae and the pie,
one patron asked:
“what’d you do to your wrist?”
“This,” I replied, hefting the plates
by way of indication
and it was clear
he did not quite understand.
We don’t have insurance, generally,*
so we pay the chiropractor, the accupuncturist, the emergency room
out of pocket
and we come to work sick and injured
because we can’t afford not to
We understand this is part of the job
the way my father and his highway department coworkers
understand the danger of speeding cars and distracted drivers
We do what we have to to make a living,
we accept the risks, and do our best to take care.
But when damage is done
we slip through the cracks
invisible to the rest of society
invisible, sometimes, to the very people we serve.
A few weeks ago, one of my father’s coworkers was pinned by a car
while fixing a pedestrian crossing signal.
they took his leg.
Highway workers are killed on the job as often as cops,
but the news cameras rarely show up for their funerals.
I know a woman who waitressed with a broken bone in her foot for months
I knew a woman in her fifties who’d been serving all her life,
and who smoked pot to deal with the chronic pain;
when she spoke up about unfair treatment,
her bosses made her take a random drug test
and sent her home without a job
I know of a waitress with cancer, and a five year old son
it takes a lot of 15% gratuities to cover chemo.
I have known a lot of waitresses.
I have hundreds of stories in my apron pockets
and somehow “Union” is a dirty word
people my age do not say it
people in my industry do not say it
it was not always this way,
and i’ll tell you what
I may have a bunch of college degrees,
but my collar is blue,
and i’ve got a Little Red Songbook around here somewhere.
* * * * *
*Full disclosure. I now have health care through my husband’s employer (my infant son and I are insured for the low price of 700$+/month). I also work for what is hands down the fairest, most supportive restaurant I’ve ever encountered in 12 years in the industry. That being said, my experience still leads me to conclude blue-collar workers are getting SCREWED in America. People my age (I’m 30) have little to no concept of the importance or potential power of unions. The Reagan era wrote labor history out of the textbooks, big business and corrupt union leadership gave worker organization a bad name, and right-wing politicians are dismantling the gains of the labor movement bit by bit. Time to think about what Labor Day really means. A lot more than BBQs.
Ever heard of the Seattle Waitress Union Local 240? Headquartered on 2nd Ave downtown, they were once called “the red-hottest unionists in Seattle” by the Seattle Union Record. “Formed on March 23, 1900 by Alice Lord. This all white union was one of the first women’s unions to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor. Under the direction of Alice Lord, the Seattle Waitress’ Union is accredited with establishing the 8 hour work day and 6 hour work week for all female servers. The Seattle Waitress’ Union was also successful in their fight for a state sanctioned minimum wage.” Kept people of color out, which is no good, (pretty standard for unions/suffrage movements at the time), but damn they raised some hell (and wages). And we’ve never heard of them. “Before organizing the girls were compelled to work all the way from ten to fifteen hours per day for from $3 to $6 per week, but now thanks to organization, we are never called upon to work more than ten hours and receive in compensation thereof $8.50 to $10 per week.” (From the Waitress Union newsletter in 1902)
Here’s a little more on Miz Alice Lord:
and some more good hellraising waitress stories.
Check out UNITE HERE Local 8’s website to learn about labor struggles affecting fo and beverage and hospitality workers in Seattle.