Bartenders bring a manipulative, thieving bully in line

A bartender describes how she and her coworkers stopped tip theft and won pay stubs through a collective confrontation of the boss. Image © Kyle May via Wikimedia Commons.

Describe the workplace.

There are two bars owned by the same person. And some of the staff float between the two. The one place has just been poppin’ all year long, getting busier and busier. It’s the hip place to be in the city, it’s only been open for a year and it’s tiny. The owner comes in to drink and party.

There’s a lot wrong with the place. It can be dirty, we don’t have a lot of the product that we need. So it’s really poorly managed by the boss, he’s really absentee, and really cheap. And he also takes tips. All the cash tips go into a jar, and at the end of the night we’ll split all the cash tips, and the credit card tips go on our paychecks. When the boss came in because we were understaffed, he would cut himself in to the tips. If you come in and help, that’s because you own the place. It’s your bar. And owners can’t [legally] do that. But I think a lot of people don’t know that – they know ethically it’s wrong, but they don’t know there are laws. And even when you know, it’s like, how do you fight this? Everybody thought it was wrong but nobody had said anything about it because he’s a manipulative guy.

Were you trying to organize or was this spurred by the issues?

Both. I think you should always go in[to a job] with the mindset, “this place is going to have problems” and you’re going to get taken advantage of anywhere you work. I tried to be a good coworker and listen to people and really find out what is going on because I was new. Then stuff started coming to a head – the poor management, we weren’t getting paystubs, the guy is just a jerk, mean, screaming at people.

Explain the problem with the lack of paystubs.

If we didn’t give him enough of a tip out, he would go back to the books and change it.

Where did he take it from?

The credit card tips. He was just writing us checks. He had [record-keeping] in a book but it didn’t make sense. Like he would just take a flat 15% out for tax. Someone was applying for Medicaid or trying to buy a house and didn’t have proof they worked there. Some of my coworkers don’t even know how much they get paid per hour.

I was trying to work myself up to inviting people to one-on-ones outside of the workplace. But one night [the boss] was screaming at me, and another coworker happened to come by to pick up their paycheck, and they gave me a ride home, and I said “I can’t take this anymore, can we talk about this outside [of work]?” We set it up two days later.

I think the boss ended up screaming at another one of my coworkers, and those two, plus an additional coworker, all came to pick me up from closing time at work [one night], like, “We can’t take this anymore. We want to call [the boss].” But I wanted to do things right, think things through, be careful, always be one step ahead, not get ahead of ourselves.

We met weekly. One coworker really wanted to tell the boss to fuck off, but the others among us wanted to start small, like with pay stubs, or cleaning up the place, and then working up to tips. She ended up having to work with him one night, a hellish Halloween, and he went to take the tips and she said, “You can’t do that,” and he screamed at her. He ended up calling the DOL and they said “Yeah dude, you can’t do that.” I was a little disappointed because we had talked about not doing that [rushing into things], but I went with it.

After Halloween the boss stopped helping. He’d still be there drinking and partying, but he never again served a drink behind the bar. And he stopped taking tips, but he didn’t apologize, and didn’t reimburse us, [even though] this had been happening for years.

Then about three weeks ago, he calls a staff meeting. He starts off the conversation with some history of the bar, setting the stage to say he’s not really the owner of the bar (he’s gotten personal loans from friends, etc.), and he’s going to start taking tips when he comes in, which he was going to start doing because one of the bartenders was about to go on vacation for a few weeks.

We had literally just met with Alexis from Stardust [a veteran of another IWW organizing campaign] that day, to ask “What could a direct action look like?” We wanted things changed, like pay stubs, and a change in culture. This [announcement from the boss about taking tips again] was not what we had planned for.

And I thought, “We can either have another [Halloween] situation, or I can do something about this with my coworkers.”

What was discussed in your meeting with Alexis?

She went over the roles for a march on the boss. That was something I did not know. It had been so long since I had done the OT 101 [IWW’s Organizer Training 101].

Did you practice?

Not on that phone call, but later.

Three of us had been meeting regularly, and having one-on-one conversations with others. But this [news from the boss] affected some people directly who had not been brought in to these meetings. So it was a very ramped-up timeline of having one-on-ones. Like, “We gotta meet, this is how we can directly confront him, and we should do it as a group.” But of course the first question was, “So how do you feel about [the boss] taking our tips?” We knew that [taking action] was a big ask [for some people] because we hadn’t gotten to do enough prior one-on-ones with them. But we at least got them to say, “We support you guys doing it.” We had everybody on our side.

About 3-4 days after that is when we had our practice meeting. It was stressful – some people who had said they would show up, didn’t. We brainstormed with each other what to say, how it’s going to go down. We had our roles and picked who should be in those roles — even people who weren’t there. (We assigned their roles after, in one-on-ones.) I pretended to act it out for my coworkers who were there. I was pretending to open up the door, to sit down. You can’t just talk about it.

We postponed [the action] a week – we were trying to get this one last coworker on board. I was really nervous about getting them, they’re just the person I’ve had the most reservations about, because I know them the least and they are the tightest like management. I tried to get another practice session together.

The day of, we literally had to do it, because [that bartender] was going out of town the next day. We wait until that day to text [the boss] and tell him we need to meet with him — the other problem is, there’s no office, there’s no set time [he comes in], so the only way we could do this was to ask him to be at a meeting. We did a group chat so he would know it was several of us asking. I asked a coworker to send the text. People were scared. Like having panic attacks. We had to talk about it for several hours.

Isn’t it interesting how the boss can be such an asshole and the law can be on your side and your ask can be so reasonable, and people can still be so nervous.

People do not like confrontation. We thought, “This will go well, but what happens after? We know he’s going to be crazy manipulative, but let’s at least stick together.”

He runs into one of my coworkers on the street, stops the car, and says, “Hey, what’s this meeting about?” And she [plays dumb and] says, “I don’t know, I guess you’ll find out!” He texted another coworker: “Did [coworker] put you up to this? Did she lobby you to do this?” Knowing how much he was freaking out made it easier.

We didn’t even have anything left to plan but we Facetimed each other to avoid freaking out. We met at a rec center ten minutes beforehand. [Coworker] had her speech ready. We pull up, [boss] is smoking a cigarette and drinking a CBD seltzer. He is stressed. He does not smoke cigarettes. We open at 7:30. It was 7:17. We all go to sit down. It was so awkward.

[Boss] tries to start off the conversation, and I had decided to be the interrupter, so I said, “Actually, you know what…” and I didn’t even finish my sentence, I just looked at [coworker], and she nods, and starts. She says, “You can’t do this [take tips]. And we need paystubs by March 17. We’re all in agreement about this. This is not because we hate you. It’s unfair and inappropriate and it’s just not going to fly. And the reason we need the paystubs is for accountability reasons.” That didn’t take that long, and this is when it got really awkward because then we had another eleven and a half minutes to fill up. [Boss] wanted to start talking and make excuses. I let him go for a little bit but then would interrupt him.

When it hits 7:30, we go, “We all gotta go to work now.” So we end the meeting. But me and [coworker], we’re behind the bar, and [boss] stays, and won’t stop talking to us. This is when he says, “Okay, from now on, you don’t want me to come behind the bar, and you don’t want me to take tips. So if I have to hire someone else?” And we said, “Fine.”

We should have ended the conversation with him a lot sooner. We had to get very stern, like, “I am not continuing this conversation.”

So you won on tips. What about the pay stubs?

I think the day we did it was a Friday. The Friday before March 17, so maybe the 12th. We said, “We needed pay stubs by the next payday, the 17th.” On Thursday, I get a text [from the boss] saying, “Our [software] does payroll! We’re going to have pay stubs!” But the manager calls me on the 17th saying, “We’re going to have our accountant do it, and you will have it by next payday.” We had debated – should be give them until the 17th or the 31st? I said let’s say the 17th — we can negotiate down to the 31st.