laborjustice

Illustration by Sidney Howard

July 19 was pay day for the employees of Tasty Buddha, a popular Asian fusion restaurant in west Gainesville. One employee, Jane Pollack, was eager to cash in a week’s worth of hard work. However, for the past few pay cycles, Jane and her co-workers’ paychecks had been bouncing a few days after being deposited. Fed up with having to contact management every time her paycheck got deducted from her bank account, Pollack, along with a few other employees, went directly to the company bank to cash the checks.

“The first person to try was immediately denied due to insufficient funds,” Pollack recalled.

Tasty Buddha could not pay its employees and at this point, the employees agreed that it was time to organize the strike they had been contemplating for the past few months.

Pollack and her fellow workers decided to take advantage of this strike to address other problems they have faced in the workplace. The lack of respect for the employees, broken kitchen equipment and bounced paychecks – these had long been accepted as just how things were, Jane said. These little things, usually dismissed, had been piling up for the employees, and it was that last round of denied paychecks that really pushed the envelope.

In his defense, Parker Van Hart, the president and CEO of both of Gainesville’s Tasty Buddha locations, cited financial difficulties.

“I opened a new restaurant a month before the financial crisis,” said Van Hart, who reportedly has not taken a salary since the west location opened in May 2011. “Instead of closing shop when things got scary, I went into debt so that all the people I had just hired didn’t get fired, and I kept my dream going.”

The National Labor Relations Act protects employers from firing workers that are on strike. However, most workers are not even aware of these rights or any others, for that matter. All businesses are required by federal law to display a poster that lists employee rights as guaranteed by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find this poster hidden behind bulky kitchen equipment or posted out of employees’ usual line of sight.

Despite the fact that many workers are undereducated about their rights, the complaints of the Tasty Buddha employees are merely reverberations from a louder cry for help echoing throughout the food service industry.

This local strike can be seen as a microcosm of the largest mobilization of restaurant workers to occur in the history of the United States. Around the same time as the Tasty Buddha strike, fast food strikers in several cities across the nation came together in solidarity to call out poor working conditions and demand a livable wage of $15 an hour.

While the paychecks were the tipping point, the underlying force behind the Tasty Buddha strike was the demand for better working conditions and an environment wherein employees feel like they are a respected and valued as crucial team members instead of merely replaceable pawns.

“Lack of respect for workers leads to higher turnover rates and less productivity,” Pollack said. By fostering a friendlier work environment, workers will feel like they have more at stake in the business and will work harder to contribute to the business’ success.

The strike, as Pollack had hoped, proved that she and her co-workers were not disposable, and their absence could severely disrupt the restaurant’s operations.

Here in Gainesville, labor unions are few and far between. Tasty Buddha was the only business that officially recognized the city’s sole food service industry union, the Gainesville Restaurant Workers Alliance (GRWA).

“I’m pro-union,” Van Hart said. “I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I think America has been made strong by labor unions. I think it’s a positive tool for everyone.”

According to a September 2013 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 1.2 percent of salary and wage workers nationwide are members of unions.

Pollack and her co-workers formed the GRWA as a support system for all restaurant workers, whether it be the college student who picks up a late-night shift for some extra cash or the mother of three who lives paycheck to paycheck.

Students usually resort to jobs in the food service industry because, oftentimes, little experience is necessary and the jobs are consistently available. They become dependent on this income to supplement or, in some cases, solely fund their tuition.

And while a restaurant gig may just be a way to pay the bills, for some it’s the only way.

“A quarter of the staff are students; most are young people with families,” said Van Hart of his Tasty Buddha workforce.

“Low wages and lack of job security leads to an increased reliance on social programs, such as food stamps, which leads to fewer funds for other social services such as education,” Pollack said.

Not only do restaurant workers benefit from better working conditions and higher wages, but everyone in the community is better off. According to the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, raising the minimum wage would benefit 2.9 million low wage workers while only increasing food costs by 10 cents a day for consumers. Currently, a third of food workers struggle to feed themselves, relying on food stamps at 1.5 times the rate of the general workforce.

“It will be a long way to go before [the GRWA] can have a sustainable business,” Van Hart said. “Getting a cohesive unit together…will be difficult for them.”

The unit is going to have to form strong and fast, especially in light of recent events. On October 8th, Tasty Buddha closed its doors for good. Van Hart had to file bankruptcy for the restaurant due to outstanding debt.

“[The strike] shouldn’t have happened and it’s quite possible it was the ‘dead nail’ in my company,” Van Hart said. “I’ve lost $50,000-$70,000 worth of revenue since the strike.”

With Tasty Buddha’s employees — including the ones who stuck around through the strike — now out of a job and without their past two weeks’ income, as Tasty Buddha has no money to pay them, GRWA members and activists definitely have their work cut out for them.

It doesn’t cost much to improve wages and working conditions for the employees of the food service industry and it pays off tenfold. Unions across the nation and here in Gainesville are fighting to make this heard. Sure, any restaurant’s food is easily disposable, but it’s time to recognize that its employees are not.