Photo of Lily Nicholson, organizer of Memphis Restaurant Workers United
Lily Nicholson has worked in the hospitality industry for 17 years. She is now organizing a labor group. Photos by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Lily Nicholson, a longtime Memphis restaurant server, thought she’d seen the worst of the industry: Long hours, low pay, no health insurance. But then she met the rat.  

In 2019, the server was working at a downtown restaurant when she blindly reached into a warm, dark room to get fresh tablecloths and napkins. She heard noises, and a rat scurried across her foot.

She “freaked out,” Nicholson recalled, later telling a colleague, half-jokingly, “I am one rat bite away from starting a food union.”

She wasn’t bitten, but now, a little over a year later, Nicholson has organized Memphis Restaurant Workers United, a city-wide hospitality labor association. The group currently has 12 dues-paying members, and organizers hold weekly virtual outreach meetings as a way to publicize their effort and educate potential members. 

“Many of us are one major disease away from being homeless.”

Lily Nicholson, Memphis Restaurant Workers United organizer

Currently, Memphis Restaurant Workers United is not a formal union; it does not have the authority to negotiate contracts or organize strikes, which would require certification from the National Labor Relations Board. But according to Memphis Labor Council executive secretary Jeffrey Lichtenstein, who’s aiding the effort, the organization is focused on using public pressure and support to enact industry-wide reform through local government. They also want to serve as a watchdog organization for employees’ rights.

Restaurant workers say they’re paid low wages, don’t have paid time off and, because of restaurants’ lack of consistent shift scheduling, are prevented from finding other work to supplement their income. Nicholson says she works with a dishwasher who’s unhoused because he doesn’t work enough hours to afford rent, but his irregular schedule prevents him from finding a second job. Other workers say they’re living paycheck to paycheck. 

And Nicholson has had to rely on charity care for her health needs, although she has since received health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

“Many of us are one major disease away from being homeless,” she said. 

Labor’s rising support

Nicholson has been in the industry for 17 years, and she has a long-held interest in labor organizing. But she assumed that many restaurants couldn’t afford to pay higher union wages because margins can be thin. At one workplace, she said she was asked to sign a form promising not to organize, which is likely illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, a spokesperson for the NLRB said. 

Nicholson and her colleagues began organizing after the rat incident in late 2019, but then were derailed by the pandemic. At the end of last year, with the help of Lichtenstein, they renewed the push.

The effort comes as a labor movement picks up steam nationwide. The NLRB is counting more than 3,200 votes this week that will decide whether an Alabama Amazon warehouse is the first in the country for the online retailer to unionize. Nationally, support for unions is climbing, and is the highest it’s been in just under two decades.

Memphis has a thorny history with organized labor. It was the city’s refusal in 1968 to recognize the sanitation workers’ union and its demands for better working conditions and higher pay that led to their strike. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to the city to galvanize and support the strikers when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

A group of people holding "I Am A Man" signs stand in front of a mural commemorating the 1968 sanitation workers' strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis
People gathered in April 2017 in Memphis to remember the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the city. Here, some stand in front of a mural commemorating the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that King came to support. Photo by Andrea Morales

Organizing restaurant and hospitality labor can be difficult, said Lichtenstein. Turnover in the industry is high and it’s expensive to hire organizers to help unions grow.

“There are lots of attempts by individual people in restaurants to unionize that don’t get very far because folks are isolated, and employers are really good at intimidating people,” Lichtenstein said. “And just access to the knowledge about how to do it is dreadfully inaccessible.”

Other cities have successfully unionized hospitality workers, said Anthony Advincula, communications director at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national organizing group that advocates for restaurant workers. Las Vegas has both a massive, city-wide culinary union as well as a bartenders union. In 2018, the average worker on the Vegas strip made $23 an hour, plus health care, a pension and a retirement plan, according to the Associated Press. 

The threat of a city-wide strike that year prompted many casinos to agree to favorable deals with the culinary union, which included wage increases and protections for workers’ rights if a property was sold.

Other cities like Oakland, California; the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, New York, and Asheville, North Carolina also have hospitality unions, Advincula said. But Memphis may be hamstrung in labor rights efforts because the Tennessee legislature is Republican-controlled, he added. Tennessee is one of 15 states with the country’s lowest hourly tipped minimum wage, at $2.13. (The tipped minimum wage can be lower than the federal hourly minimum wage because it relies on tips to make up the difference). Pro-business Republicans also tend to support so-called “right-to-work” laws, which prohibit unions from negotiating contracts that require employees to pay union dues. Critics say those laws, which Tennessee has, make workplaces harder to unionize.

Outreach, education and support

For a union to negotiate contracts and represent employees, workers must hold an election to unionize and a majority of voters must approve the effort. The NLRB then certifies the union as the representative for collective bargaining. Alternatively, an employer can voluntarily recognize a union. 

Memphis Restaurant Workers United has members from a variety of employers, meaning if they wanted to represent employees in collective bargaining, workers in each restaurant would have to hold an election. Another option would be for the organization to become a local chapter of an international union, like United Campus Workers or The United Food and Commercial Workers.

Collective bargaining and striking aren’t the primary goals of Memphis Restaurant Workers United right now. The organization is focused on outreach, education and support for restaurant workers.

That involves “providing the resources, and then mobilizing the kind of pressure needed to get redress when restaurants do what they are notorious for doing: Wage theft, discrimination, and other things that are formally illegal but de facto are so, so common,” Lichtenstein said.

Lichtenstein said one shorter-term goal is petitioning the city to create a body that would document and look at labor violation complaints in the hospitality industry.

Ultimately, members say they want to increase labor rights for hospitality workers across the city by securing paid leave, set schedules, increased pay and health care – but those efforts may come later, if the organization joins or becomes a formal union.

Crossing divides

Right now, Memphis Restaurant Workers United is majority white, which organizers say is a problem in a city that’s 64% Black. In restaurant employment, there’s also a divide between the front and back of house, since servers, bartenders and hosts tend to be white while cooks, dishwashers and bussers tend to be workers of color. Though organization members are split between front and back of house workers, organizers are pushing to include more of both, with the goal of increasing both overall membership and people of color.

Though Nicholson said the organization is focusing some efforts on independently-owned restaurants and small, local chains, organizers still encourage employees of franchises and fast-food chains to join. Down the line, the union might have difficulty negotiating contracts in franchises, since they can be controlled by corporations. But in their current watchdog role, Lichtenstein said they can still serve franchise employees.

“Franchises are some of the worst violators of federal wage and hour laws and workplace health and safety laws,” he said. “We’ll treat local franchises and fast-food chains just the same and anyone who thinks they’re experiencing wage theft or wants to build power in one of those workplaces – we’ll absolutely do it.” 

“You can have a feeling of being voiceless for only so long until you start screaming together.”

Lily Nicholson

Nicholson said racial justice goes hand in hand with labor rights. Unionizing “would, by and large, be a really effective way to address a lot of this disparity and a lot of the inherent racist systems in this city,” she said. It would be naive to think it’s the only solution, she said, but it’s a key component.

“The long end goal is to try to rectify a lot of the wrong that’s been done in the southeast for too long, and I think that unionizing hospitality is a fantastic way to do it,” she said.

Because Memphis Restaurant Workers United is still so small, there’s no hierarchy. All members are currently on equal footing, though Nicholson does expect that as membership grows, they’ll hold elections and draft bylaws.

Dues are $14 a month, which go to mostly administration, Nicholson said, such as the Zoom account they use. They’re also under the fiscal sponsorship of the Workers Interfaith Network, which provides dues collection and bookkeeping technical support.

Members are optimistic about the future of the group. As membership grows, they hope, they might be able to pursue collective bargaining agreements and secure contracts with individual restaurants who’d like to employ union workers. 

But the strength of Memphis Restaurant Workers United will be its collective power, Nicholson said.

“Workers can only be exploited for so long,” Nicholson said. “You can have a feeling of being voiceless for only so long until you start screaming together.”

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