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Fighting the Exploitative Nature of Tipping Culture

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There’s been a lot of discussion lately about tipping culture and the awfulness of it all. It gives customers tremendous power over the people who wait on them, often dooming waitstaff to lives of poverty. It’s another way to steal wages from the paychecks of workers, helping employers while leaving workers desperate and customers often confused or hostile. Moreover, restaurants often steal tips from the waitstaff, through taking a cut off the top. Here in Rhode Island, Rep. Christopher Blazejewski has introduced a bill that cracks down on the “service fees” at facilities. People assume this goes to workers and it is theoretically supposed to but employers often take a big percentage.

Dave Jamieson has more:

“It’s an issue I’ve been hearing about for some time from my constituents,” said Blazejewski, noting that his neighborhood in Providence includes many restaurant and hotel workers. “For one, it’s about fairness for the wait staff that relies on tips. Secondly, I think it’s a consumer fraud issue where patrons have a reasonable expectation that the tip is to reward good service.”

Employers would still be able to add administrative fees to checks; they just couldn’t describe them as tips or gratuities, Blazejewski said. The Rhode Island Hospitality Association, a trade group for hotels, contacted Blazejewski with concerns about the bill but were unavailable on Tuesday for comment on the legislation.

The exploitative nature of tipping culture has created some interesting responses. Among them is the creation of restaurant cooperatives. I spent last weekend in Austin and San Antonio. In Austin, I visited Black Star Co-op. This is a very cool pub/restaurant that helps fill the surprisingly weak spot in Austin’s hipster culture–a lack of microbrews. It was pretty good. I recommend the really tasty kimchi fries if they are on the menu that day (though the melted cheese on top didn’t add much. I just took it off). The beer was quite tasty as well.

More interesting is the business model. It truly is a co-op. People become members and part-owners, able to vote on co-op business and receiving special benefits. The workers don’t have a union per se, but there is a Workers’ Assembly that elects a liaison to the Board of Directors. Seniority matters within the Workers’ Assembly, with full rights granted after a year of employment. Given the restaurant’s recent opening, 5 of the 17 workers are full members (or at least were the last time the site was updated), but no doubt that will go up over time. This may not be a union, but it does a lot of what unions do.

When I was ready to leave the bar, I went up to pay my tab. I got the receipt and there was no line for the tip. I asked the bartender where I leave the tip. He basically lectured me that they don’t accept tips because everyone gets paid a living wage. He then told me I should be become a member and make the business stronger.

I thought this was pretty fantastic. In a rarely unionized industry with a lot of exploitation and workers squeezed between employers and customers, here is a business that combines the cooperative nature of a 1970s natural food market with high wages and the goods modern consumers like, such as beer and kimchi fries. Sure, it’d be great if the United Food and Commercial Workers union could organize restaurant workers around the nation, but the small and transient workforces make this very difficult. This model of cooperative ownership and living wages provides an interesting model for work that could grow. There may be problems with the model I don’t anticipate, but it’s certainly a step up from restaurant labor as it currently stands.

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