In this article, Madaline tells the story of how she fell into organizing and the IWW – pushed both by terrible bosses and by amazing solidarity among her coworkers.
If the first week of work at Artistry Bakery and Cafe was any indication, there was no way this four-month experience should ever have resulted in two of the strongest friendships in my life. I was introduced on the first day to a group of men and women, mostly about University age, who were also going to be working with me at the restaurant. Before our new manager arrived to start the training, I started talking to a tall, tattooed woman, and the conversation turned to things which embarrassed us. I said that I was embarrassed by my one of my middle names, Ruth, and continued for several minutes to tell her how much I disliked this name. Confidently, I ended with “God, I mean, what a horrible thing to do to your daughter. What’s your name?”
Stone-faced she stared and me and said “Ruth”. I was fairly sure she wouldn’t ever want to speak to me again.
A few days passed while I was learning the ropes unpaid (the manager told me that it was standard in the restaurant industry not to pay workers for the first five days), and nearing the end of the week I met another of the new hires. This time I was very careful to ask her name, and she told me her name was Melissa. She didn’t seem to fit in right away with the more counterculture workers at the cafe, and she usually came to work dressed conservatively. She seemed confident, spoke little, and was an experienced worker several years older than me. She told me her mom was a United Church minister. Without any real, definable reason, I did not like Melissa. I had a feeling that she would be difficult to work with, and she seemed bossy.
It didn’t take very long for me to discover what a terrible job I had taken. The cafe was enormous but understaffed, with an extensive menu and a tiny kitchen run by only one experienced cook; a baseball fanatic named Evan. There were only two kitchen workers and one dishwasher for just under thirty tables. Customers were often furious with the long wait times for food, and shouted at the serving staff, walked out on bills or failed to tip. Immediately other problems began to appear as well.
The family which owned the restaurant was made up of an old man named Nathan, who constantly sat in the kitchen eating the food as it was prepped and pastries from the bakery case, while criticizing the kitchen workers harshly. Melanie was his embittered wife of twenty years. They bickered audibly, and Melanie had a frightening temper that could sometimes lead to slammed doors and broken dishes.
The primary manager was their son, Samuel, who was tall and thin with a greyish complexion and a heart condition. He worked long hours trying to make the business more successful and was chronically exhausted, unable to stand up to his parents who each made separate “executive decisions” about the business.
There was a second son as well, a local bigwig Conservative politician, named Robert. Robert often held business meetings in the cafe, using ten or more tables, and sitting all day while being served food and coffee. Robert and his friends would take up a whole section, and one person would be assigned to them solely until they left. At the end of the day, they would have a tab of two or three hundred dollars, which Robert’s parents would clear for him, and no tip would be left for the server who had not been able to take any other tables all day to make her wage.
As the business struggled to compensate for the profits lost due to Nathan, Robert, and family friends being served for free, they started to ask the servers to cut corners. One day, I noticed that a tray of pastries in the display case had gone moldy and I removed them to throw away. Nathan caught me as I was about to dump them into the garbage and grabbed them from my hands. He shouted at me, accusing me of being wasteful and spoiled. I explained that we couldn’t sell the pastries because they were moldy, but he insisted that I simply cover the mould with more icing so it couldn’t be seen by customers. When I refused, he did it instead.
The management instituted a new rule that all workers could not bring their own lunch to work, allegedly because it posed a health and safety risk of contamination. We were also not allowed to leave during our shift, even on breaks, and so were forced to buy food at regular prices from the cafe.
Although I had only had one serving job previously, I was upset by the how the workers were treated by the management. I knew it was common to work bad jobs in the restaurant industry, and I was thankful that Nathan and Samuel had never tried to approach me sexually as managers at my previous job had, but I was constantly afraid of being yelled at and of how I might not make rent each month.
Other servers felt the same, and before long nearly all the servers had left Artistry. Melissa, Ruth and I, were the only consistent serving staff left and we were not able to take sick days because we were so understaffed. I came to work with the flu once, feeling terrible and exhausted, and I started my shift with Melissa. She was scheduled to go home within an hour of me arriving, as she had already worked the opening shift at six that morning. I started to feel even worse while I was working and spent the first half hour throwing up. I asked if I could go home, but Nathan told me that I had to stay or he “could not be sure” that I would have a job the next day. I was on the verge of tears, dizzy and sick. Out of the blue, I heard Melissa say firmly “She has to go home. She can’t work.” Nathan refused. And then Melissa earned my loyalty forever: She said “I’ve already called her a cab, Nathan. I’m going to work her shift.” She worked a sixteen hour day, back to back shifts, so that I could go home and not lose my job.
One night Ruth and I went out for coffee together. She told me about her experience working in other coffee shops and how she had always wanted to own one. We began to discuss the changes we would make to Artistry if we had a say. I said I thought they should reduce the menu size so Evan didn’t have to cook so much from scratch. She said it was ridiculous how there was never someone designated to make drinks. I remember joking “It’s so stupid. Even we could do a better job running Artistry than they do! You should tell them how it’s done.”
Ruth leaned across the table and said “Well, we can talk, and they won’t listen. Or we can just do it.”
After that, everything happened pretty quickly. Ruth and I started meeting for sushi down the road and talking about work. Mostly, we complained about management and their incompetence, and how we could do the work better. We invited Melissa to come along and a few other people who showed up once or twice, and then left because the conditions were so bad.
Once we knew we were all on the same page and agreed, we began to do little things to undermine the situation at work. Many of them started as jokes that we could laugh about later when we told each other. We did little things, like covering each other’s tables while one person worked the drinks bar. When the work slowed down and we were likely to be sent home, we kept each other on-shift by doing and then undoing work. One person would fill the ketchup bottles, one person would empty and wash them, the other would fill them up again, and then we’d empty them. We did the same for sugar and salt. We started refusing to buy notepads and pens, which management required that we carry. Instead we obsessively collected receipts from sales, and met next door after work to staple the receipts together into makeshift notebooks. Management complained that they looked unprofessional and the receipts were their property, so we refused to carry notebooks at all until they gave in. Whenever we ate at work, we had to record what we had eaten on a white board. We rotated the task of who “accidentally” cleaned the white board off each day. Before long, I really felt like we were a part of something awesome. We had a momentum that pushed us to be creative and brave in a way that I had never been before, and I felt like our loyalty to each other made us invincible.
During this time, Samuel suffered a nonfatal heart attack and was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. The doctors told him he was not allowed to continue working until he was able to regulate his blood pressure, so Melanie and Nathan took over all the management work. After Samuel was no longer able to help them at work, they seemed to become more aggressive with the staff and care less about how they appeared to us.
It sounds small, but one of the biggest steps for me was learning to verbally stand up for myself at work. It was easier knowing Ruth and Melissa would support me, but still made me nervous. This was not because I was afraid to be disciplined, but because I didn’t like to be mean. One day I had burned my hands badly on the steam from the cappuccino machine, and I was slower making drinks because it hurt to get my burns in the hot steam. Nathan told me to speed up and I did, burning my hands again right away. He kept telling me to work faster and asking when I would be able to go see this table, or clean that up. I am hypoglycemic, and I hadn’t taken a break all day, so my blood sugar was low and my hands were shaking, spilling drinks. I looked up and I saw Ruth glaring at Nathan from the other side of the bar, ready to snap at him. In that moment, I realized that if Ruth yelled at Nathan, she would be the one to take the hit. I needed to do something before she did, so I turned around and shouted “Stop it! I don’t need you to yell at me, I need you to do something, for a change!” It wasn’t that brilliant, or assertive even, but he looked shocked and it worked.
At one of our meetings, Ruth, Melissa and I discussed how it was impossible to make any tips at work. Whenever a problem arose with the food (which was constantly) management blamed it on the servers and kitchen staff, who they characterized as lazy or stupid. In many restaurants, if a customer is disgruntled for a good reason, managers will “comp” their drinks, making them free to keep the goodwill of the customer. This act often also saves the server’s tip. Since the management had refused to do this for us, Ruth came up with a brilliant idea: Comp the food ourselves. She asked us to give her one day to figure out if her plan would work, and then returned to us the second day to announce that it had. From that point on, if a customer was upset about something that wasn’t our fault, we would give them their drinks for free, claiming that it had been done by the management. Because management had refused to hire someone to work the drinks bar, this was very easy to do; we simply made our own drinks and failed to ring them in until the end, when we knew if a meal need to be discounted to save our tip.
Saturdays were always ridiculously busy and we were completely overwhelmed by orders that we had no capacity to fill in time. As usual, one Saturday, I had far more tables than I could handle and the food was running massively behind. I did all I could for my table, explaining that the kitchen was running slowly, and updating the times they could expect their food, but one of the men at the table became really angry. He stood up and started shouting that he should be able to expect food in a reasonable time, and that he wanted to talk to the cook. He said that he was going to “go back there” (to the kitchen) and see everybody sitting on their asses, and then he would punch the cook in the face. I could see Evan’s terrified expression through the window where we passed plates as the man started marching toward the kitchen area. I ran after him shouting for him to stop. Fortunately there was a narrow hall before the kitchen area and by the time we got there, Ruth had wedged herself in the hall, holding on to either side and blocking the entrance. He tried to push past her while Ruth fought to shove him out of the hallway. We were calling for Nathan or Melanie to come help us, but they didn’t respond. The struggle continued for a few seconds and then the man suddenly gave up, and stormed out of the restaurant. Later, we found out that Melanie had hidden on the floor of the kitchen, only feet away from us.
Evan offered to buy Ruth and I drinks as a thank-you for helping with the angry customer, and we accepted. Before long, Evan was attending our sushi meetings and talking about issues in the kitchen, like the lack of cleanliness, and how there was never enough prep work done before he got to work in the morning. Melissa asked if there were any ways that the serving staff could help make his job easier, and he gave us several suggestions. One was that it was hard for him to yell “order up!” loud enough for us to hear in the huge restaurant, so he had to say it several times before we came to pick up food. The servers decided to buy Evan a bell for him to ring when orders were up, and he returned the favor by asking what he could do to help us out, too. The coffee mugs and other dishes were often dirty when we picked them up, so we asked if Evan could approach the dishwasher, Tobin, who was a recent immigrant from India. We hoped Evan would invite him to come along to the meetings so we could talk to him as well. Soon he was a regular at our meetings.
Issues that we resolved successfully (for us, not management) lead to more issues, and soon we realized that we would have to start confronting management about bigger problems like unpaid wages. We were all struggling to make ends meet. Melissa, Ruth and I had started keeping a diary of our hours independently of management records, and found that our pay was consistently short of what we had expected. We encouraged the kitchen staff to look at their wages too. When it was apparent that we were all getting cheated, we decided that we had to force management to give us our wages. Melissa was owed the most money for overtime wages, so we decided to back her up when she asked for her cheque on our next work day.
After Melissa’s morning shift had ended, Ruth and I arrived at work. Melissa timed it so that all three of us would be present if Melanie was angry, and the plan was that simply having witnesses to the interaction would shame Melanie into handing over the money. I stood in the kitchen with them while Ruth handled the customers and kept us from being interrupted. It started fine, but things unraveled quickly. Melanie explained that the restaurant was having financial difficulty, and Melissa said that was not her problem, and she would file a complaint with the government if she was not paid. Melanie immediately began to yell at her calling her a “spoiled bitch”. Suddenly she shrieked “I should smack you in the face!” and swung her arm to slap Melissa. Melissa ran backwards away from Melanie, down the length of the kitchen with Melanie chasing her. Absolutely terrified, I screamed “RUTH!” and ran after them, following them into the walk-in cooler where Melanie cornered Melissa and raised her arm again to hit her. I grabbed Melanie’s arm from behind and pulled as hard as I could, causing her to lose her balance and step backwards. We all froze and stared at each other in shock, as Ruth barreled into the cooler looking murderous. Melissa said very quietly but forcefully “You had better not hit me, Melanie.”
Melanie shook my hand off her arm and said to me “You stupid girl. I was trying to hug her. You’re like my own daughters.” Then she walked out.
After the paycheck incident, the situation at work was becoming very heated. We all agreed on one thing: If anyone were to go up against management alone, they were likely to be fired. The entire staff of the restaurant at the time, Evan, Ruth, Melissa, the dishwasher and I, sat down over beer one night and swore an oath to each other that if any of us were to be fired, we would all instantly quit leaving the restaurant to try to find staff before they went bankrupt. In retrospect, the way we planned it was not a wonderful idea at all, but it made sense at the time.
Not even two weeks later, we were working in a nearly dead restaurant. The problems with the food and staffing were apparent even to the public. Management was actively trying to re-staff the restaurant so that it would be possible to fire us, and we all worked endlessly to make this as difficult as humanly possible. When potential employees came into the restaurant we greeted them immediately, and in a hushed voice told them not to apply because the management was terrible and they would make no money. Any resumes that were left were immediately torn up and flushed down the toilet in the staff washroom. When they were finally able to approach and hire one new worker, Melissa kindly offered to stay overtime to train her “for free”, and the new hire was gone by the next day. We even did a bit of research and found out there was another coffee shop in the city that was owned by our managers. To prevent them from trying to transfer staff from that location to ours, we went to the other coffee shop and explained how terrible working at Artistry had become. No one from that location ever consented to a transfer.
They cut our hours massively, never allowing us to have more than thirty minutes where there was more than one of us working, except on weekends. To get the most out of us when there were no customers, they asked to do bizarre tasks, such as dusting the leaves of the massive fake tree in the dining area. One Sunday in late August, we were all working together cleaning the baseboards with glass-cleaner because there was nothing else to do. When the baseboards were clean, we were asked to do them again. Ruth complained to Melanie that it was ridiculous to do work that we had just done, and that if there were no tables, they should find us different work. As Ruth walked to the kitchen with a tray of dishes, coolly Melanie said that Ruth could go home and not come back to work ever.
I felt like ice water had been poured over my whole body. I had no idea what to do. I looked at Ruth. Ruth grinned broadly, and then held the tray of dishes she was carrying away from her body and dropped it nearly all six feet of her height, sending smashed glass all over the floor. “Mail me my paychecks,” she yelled, “Because I’m never fucking coming back!”
Melissa and I worked the rest of our shift, and all three of us met after work with Evan. We didn’t know if Ruth wanted to try to get her job back, so we waited to quit. After talking to Ruth, we knew it was over. I was fired the next day, Melissa quit before they could speak to her, so did Evan and the dishwasher. There was no staff left.
They tried to keep the restaurant open for a couple of days with the three managers working our combined jobs, but had to close within the week. Nearly six years have passed, and Artistry Bakery and Cafe has had incredible difficulty keeping staff. Many, many servers have heard from someone who knows someone who says it isn’t worth applying – rumor has it Melanie tried to hit someone once.
Evan left for the West Coast to play professional baseball. Tobin got full-time work at a liquor store. Melissa, Ruth and I held a three-person bonfire party, where we burned our uniforms and vowed to remain friends. Three months later, when I was walking home one night with Ruth and Melissa, I saw a poster for an I.W.W. talk on a radical coffee shop union in Starbucks. This whole time I had identified politically as a Socialist, but felt really disengaged from my political work, and I wanted something that explained the experiences I had had while working. Not knowing who the I.W.W. was, I looked at Ruth and Melissa and said “I should be with those guys”. Ruth and Mel laughed and still give me a really hard time for that comment – they do impressions of me saying that next to sketchy posters for Scientology events or raves.
I went to the Starbucks Workers Union talk, and it was good but confusing for me because I didn’t really understand about unions yet. I drilled some branch members on issues I felt were important. Mostly, I liked the people and I liked that they cared about coffee shop workers. When I saw their poster honoring the role women have played in the IWW, and the fact that an old, white guy was talking enthusiastically about it, I started to get very interested and asked if I could come to a meeting. At the time I was a member of the International Socialist Organization and in the ISO I had only ever heard women talking about women. It was cool to see that men in the IWW seemed to be on the same page on this as well. It was definitely the coffee shop focus that brought me there in the first place, and the Starbucks campaign was the first time I heard of the IWW. I am now a proud and committed wobbly and am organizing in my current industry.
Since working at Artistry I’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to organize more effectively, but I will never forget how strong I felt with the solidarity of my coworkers. Evan went on to pursue a professional baseball career, and Ruth, Melissa and I maintain a close friendship to this day.
Robert lost his political office to a New Democrat a few years ago, and was shortly thereafter convicted of driving under the influence and possession of cocaine. He was stripped of his political titles. I very nearly wrote him a sympathy card expressing that I hoped he would like his new career as a server and that he had better pray people tipped better than he did.
Originally posted: April 12, 2013 at Recomposition