A restaurant job action that changed everything

Heather, then a waitress, brings us this wonderful, gonzo story about a job action in a restaurant in South Carolina in 1988. As told to Organizing Work contributor Jean-Carl Elliott.

What is the name of the restaurant you were working at and how would you describe your overall experience working there?

[I worked at several restaurants:] Shoney’s, Bob’s Big Boy. The late 80s-early 90s were a very different time. My experience there was mostly filled with being screamed at A LOT, being told we could be easily replaced by a team of monkeys, and being constantly sexually harassed. It was such a high-stress, fast-paced environment that we would all take caffeine pills by the handful & drink pepto like tea (especially at the Carowinds location). There was a lot of illegal drug use as well at all the locations.

What were the main issues/grievances that the workers faced there?

Now the time I’m talking about is ’85-’94 (I’m super old). Mainly just being treated subhuman — we weren’t allowed to eat, we were constantly screamed at, the rule we all lived and died by was the 30-second rule: you had 30 seconds from the time the fanny hit the fabric to when the water hit the table. We had to count our steps — there were a certain number of steps to like, the bar or the table or the back of house; these were calibrated to lessen wasteful steps (fastest route possible). We were inspected daily as we came in: hair had to be high and tight, minimal makeup, no nail polish except clear. Our uniforms consisted of a blouse, neck bow and polyester vest for female managers, polyester wraparound skirt, apron, pantyhose, and back then nurses’ shoes were the only thing non-slip. [Everything] had to be freshly ironed and stain-free.

God forbid you got triple-seated and fell behind, you’d have a manager screaming in your face. You were only allowed to go to the bathroom during your ten-minute break you got every eight hours. The sexual harassment was constant and frightening — there’s a reason they went from #1 to closed down.

What sorts of efforts had workers made to address those issues/grievances and what were the results of those efforts?

We held numerous meetings over the years. Management would placate us with bs, then nothing would change. If you brought up the sexual harassment you’d be told, “I mean c’mon, you’re very attractive / cute, you should take it as a compliment” or something of that nature. The harassment was so bad and such an open secret that all the girls knew not to go to the walk-in [refrigerator / freezer] or dry stock by themselves.

How was the decision made to walk out?  What sort of conversations and planning was involved?

I was at Shoney’s in Rock Hill, SC then. We had a manager who would get all coked up & not only be an unbearable bastard (yelling at everyone, slamming the cook line door open), he would also rub his dick against our asses and grope our tits (this is ‘88 so I’m like 16-17), lick our necks as he did so. We complained to corporate and they just told him and [he] took it out on us so we were at an impasse.

One day our manager was in his usual mood and he slammed the cook line door open just as I was coming though with a half pan of grits from the bar, steaming hot. His actions caused the door to hit me, and the grits went all over my torso (I don’t know if you’ve ever had hot grits hit your flesh but it burns like lava until you get them off). So here comes the manager to “help” me; I’m half hysterical from the burning. By the time I hit the dish pit my blouse is completely open, I’ve got a towel trying to get them off me and by then I realize my manage has a towel inside my bra fully caressing my nipple. So I head to the bathroom; he attempted to follow me in but luckily there were customers, so he waited outside to act as though he was concerned. 

After work we all met up at one of the cooks’ houses and talked about everything that had gone on. We came to the agreement to make a list of demands, and if Bob (the manager) didn’t agree, we were walking. We had to make sure every single one of us agreed or it wouldn’t work. We also called our other [co]workers and asked that they just not answer their phones. The next day at 5:00am we all walk in, hand Bob the paper and tell him he has until noon to agree or we were walking. About 11:45 we asked about the terms and he ripped the paper up, made an ass-wiping motion, and tossed it into the trash. 

Now, Rock Hill is like a suburb of Charlotte, NC — we were SLAMMED at lunch and dinner, always. Once the foyer was full of customers waiting to be seated, we all looked at one another and marched in unison right out the front door! Bob followed us out and asked “WTF do you dumbasses think you’re doing?” We told him since he refuses to treat us with even the slightest amount of respect, we can no longer work for him. He was of course livid, told us we were all fired & that he would blackball us to all the other restaurants in town (which he fully could do back then). We had already contacted our DM [district manager] & told him he’d better come deal with this. By this time there’s a near riot in the dining room with pissed-off customers; Bob had to close the doors because he had no staff. He waited inside and we waited outside for the DM. He finally showed up, we gave him our grievances, and he went inside to talk to Bob. Because actual customers had seen / heard how he treated us, Bob was fired and we were all rehired and apologized to, and we got a new manager, who was actually human.

What was the final outcome?  What concessions did you win?

Our breaks were expanded to 20 minutes, we were allowed to go to the bathroom as we needed, I was put in charge of scheduling and I always made sure our days off were together, not two separate days. Most importantly we were treated as equal humans!

What about the harassment?

We only had one male manager after that and [there] was never a problem. Our rights were posted in the breakroom for the first time ever and they posted the number for the human rights officer.