When Emilia Peña-Suarez brings out orders at the Original Pantry Cafe in Los Angeles—stacks of fluffy pancakes as large as plates and slabs of fried ham as large as pancakes—customers often remark on her name tag, which reads, “Serving Since 2003.” They say, “Wow, have you really worked here since 2003?” And she says, “Yes—but I’m still a rookie.” One of Peña-Suarez’s former coworkers spent 56 years frying bacon and eggs at the diner before retiring in 2016. Brothers Jesus and Jose Moran have worked at the restaurant for more than 30 years.
When Peña-Suarez was growing up in Inglewood in the 1970s, she and her grandmother would hop on the bus most Sundays and make their way to downtown Los Angeles. After going to mass on Olvera Street, they would stop at the Pantry for breakfast before heading home. Peña-Suarez made the jump from patron to employee nearly 30 years later, when she put on a Pantry uniform and name tag for the first time.
There’s a reason employees stay at the Pantry for a lifetime: it’s one of the few restaurants in Los Angeles where the workers are represented by a union. Peña-Suarez is one of the 23,000 members of Unite Here Local 11, the service-workers’ union behind the Pantry and a number of iconic LA restaurants: Langer’s, Nate ’n Al Delicatessen, Philippe the Original, La Golondrina, and La Scala.
Both LA’s local minimum wage and the state’s are slowly rising toward the $15 benchmark set by the Fight for $15—but the movement has pushed not only for an increase in pay, but also the right to form a union. Today, just 2 percent of US food-service employees are represented by a union, and many working in restaurants aren’t afforded the kinds of benefits like health care and paid sick leave that Unite Here members enjoy.
It hasn’t always been that way, according to Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at UC Berkeley. “There was a time when labor had significant power, and they could go up and down a street and get every business on that street to agree that they would be union,” including retail establishments and restaurants, he said. “But that power hasn’t existed for a very long time.” Relics of this era like the Unite Here restaurants remain in Los Angeles (most of the union’s members work in hotels), and there are similarly old-school union places like San Francisco and New York. But the only newer union restaurants in LA are located in hotels and airports, where they are part of a larger collective-bargaining contract.
The contracts vary at Unite Here’s independent restaurants, but generally speaking, the union negotiates with management to set base-pay rates for nontipped workers (servers earn minimum wage plus tips) and establish benefits programs, which can include medical and life insurance policies and a pension plan.
At Langer’s, server Shina Devon said working a union job has afforded her a certain kind of freedom that working at other restaurants has not. “It gives me a platform to live my life in a way that many people don’t in this city,” she said over the scratchy sound of pastrami orders being called over the loudspeaker. “It’s very old fashioned in a way: You know what your schedule is, you know who you’re going to see every day, you get into a rhythm of life, and it works. You go home at a reasonable time. It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is.”
Her boss, Norm Langer, whose father opened the MacArthur Park deli in 1947, said he doesn’t just have a good relationship with the union—“I have a great relationship.” But things aren’t always rosy between the union and management at the restaurants it represents. Workers at Musso and Frank Grill, Hollywood’s time capsule of a steak house, were first organized in 1937. It remained union until three years ago, when Unite Here decertified the contract following tense negotiations over choosing a new health care plan for employees after the union canceled their existing one.
“We treated the employees just as well then as we do now,” said Mark Echeverria, whose great-grandfather opened Musso and Frank in 1919. Staff are paid above the minimum wage, and the restaurant pays 100 percent of health benefits for full-time workers, who are famously long tenured. Ruben Rueda, a bartender who has served the likes of Charles Bukowski and Steve McQueen over the decades, celebrated his 50th anniversary at Musso and Frank last October.
Even if Langer would like to see Local 11 bring back the old union hall he used to hire trained staff from, it can seem like being unionized is simply part of the old-school charm of these restaurants. And with Musso and Frank dropping its contract, the number of union restaurant workers in LA has dwindled further: With more than 26,000 restaurants in the city, just six stand-alone establishments are unionized. There are efforts underway to add more restaurant workers to the union’s ranks, including at two developments currently under construction in Santa Monica, where Unite Here is laying the groundwork to organize the future restaurant tenants. Elsewhere, workers at a Burgerville location in Portland, Oregon, voted in April to unionize under the fledgling Burgerville Workers Union. But even if an owner like Norm Langer sees the benefit of having union workers, he’s skeptical of new organizing efforts.
“The problem with it is you’re not going to have Norm Langer involved,” Langer said. “You will always get more with sugar and honey than you will with lemon and vinegar. And the unions—not necessarily 11—but the unions themselves have been lemon and vinegar over the years. They aren’t sugar.”
According to UC Berkeley’s Ken Jacobs, the kind of aggressive actions undertaken by the Fight for $15—the lemon and vinegar of walkouts, strikes, and protests—may in fact be the most effective means of improving the pay and working conditions in the restaurant industry. Efforts by the likes of Local 11 and the Burgerville Workers Union aside, organizing by way of the National Labor Relations Act and collective bargaining agreements—the traditional road map to unionization—will likely continue to be limited to entities with larger numbers of workers, like hotel and airport restaurants, according to Jacobs. That is, unless there are significant changes in US labor law, starting with a return to the ruling made by President Obama’s National Labor Relations Board that said companies are joint employers of workers at independent franchises—a ruling that was reversed last year. With the relatively low overall number of staff, high turnover, and a propensity to close, independent restaurants are very difficult to organize, he said. Planning a walkout at a McDonald’s or Burger King, a tactic the Fight for $15 has regularly employed, and with great success, is far easier to accomplish.
Even if more restaurant workers aren’t benefiting from collective bargaining contracts, Jacobs makes the case that groups like Fight for $15 and the Restaurant Opportunities Center are still doing the work of organizing labor, but outside of the traditional union setup. The Los Angeles and California wage hikes passed in 2016, a legislative victory won by the Fight for $15 (with financial support from the SEIU), are case in point: servers like Shina Devon and Emilia Peña-Suarez, who earn minimum wage plus tips, will see their pay inch up toward $15 in 2022, but not thanks to the efforts of Unite Here—and the wage increase will of course benefit far more workers who don’t belong to a union at all.
Still, it matters to Devon that Unite Here continue to grow. “The union works as hard as it can to make more people union and to strengthen itself,” she said. “It matters to me not just that I should have a good situation—but that that not be so strange.”