Direct Action in the Motor City: Restaurant Workers Fight Back

Fellow Worker Graham from the Detroit IWW reports on an organizing campaign among restaurant workers there. This story was first published in the Industrial Worker.

Submitted by R Totale on June 12, 2021

“The Moby Dick” is a code name used by the Detroit Industrial Workers of the World (Detroit IWW) for a campaign that has been active at a small restaurant since 2017. Conditions at The Moby Dick are probably familiar to many workers in the food service industry: low wages, stagnant wages, no benefits, no paid time off, no respect, high turnover. The owner has always had a hands-off approach to the restaurant, regardless of whether sales are booming or whether the whole operation is falling apart. The only issue the owner ever took any concern over was the thermostat. If the owner came in at the end of the night and the temperature was any different than what he had adjusted it to, he would throw a fit and go on a mission to try to find the person who had changed it.

Every once in a blue moon, the owner would call for an all-staff meeting. At the 2017 meeting, the owner started to talk about his concerns with staff attire. “I don’t want to enforce a dress code or anything like that,” he said, “but you all shouldn’t be wearing flannels or sweatshirts when you’re working. It doesn’t look professional.”

“Well, it’s freezing in here” said one of the bartenders.

“It’s not freezing to me” the owner replied.

One of the servers fired back, “Well, that’s because you don’t actually work here. You just come in at the end of the night to collect our end of day reports.” And just like that, the whole staff was clapping back at the owner, and he was outnumbered 10 to 1.

“Well, should I change it?” he finally said.

“YES!” everyone said, in unison.

The owner walked over to the thermostat and asked everyone what a comfortable temperature would be. They agreed that 68 degrees would be good and just like that, the owner changed it to exactly what they told him. After the meeting, the workers were chatting about it in their private Facebook group.

“What a nonsense meeting, but at least we got him to change the thermostat LOL,” one worker said.

“Yeah, notice how when we grouped up on him, he actually did what we said? We should do that more often!” said another worker.

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Standing up to the boss was the match that sparked the fire to begin the IWW campaign. One of the workers was already a member of IWW Industrial Union 640 (Food and Retail Workers United) and another had been to an IWW Organizer Training 101 (OT101). After the thermostat incident, the second worker signed up and they started talking about ways to have more collective actions at work. There was a front of house cleaning day coming up and the owner only paid the servers their tipped wages ($3.65/hour) plus pizza for performing the non-tipped work. The Moby Dick workers decided to collectively address that. They mapped out where the owner came in every night and where he would sit while he waited for the staff to close down the restaurant. They decided to confront him at that spot and have him surrounded when they made their demand. This tactic is known as a “March on the Boss.” The two IWW members took the lead and were able to recruit other staff to be present when it went down.

The owner always sat at the middle of the bar. When everything was ready, the bartender approached him from the front and a server approached him from the side. They told the owner, “We need to talk about pay for cleaning days. It’s illegal and unfair that you pay us server wages to clean your restaurant. We want $9.50 because that’s minimum wage.” The owner started to push back about how the wages he paid were house rules., The workers insisted. “It’s illegal and it’s unfair” they demanded. Finally, outnumbered and cornered, the owner agreed to pay $9.50. When it was time to get paid for the cleaning day, the owner ended up paying the workers $10/hour and the workers still got pizza.

Other direct actions sprung up after that. After each action, members of the committee would talk to other coworkers about it. The IWW members would say, “We have been getting back our stolen wages and winning raises because we are taking on the owner as a group. We have been joining the IWW and paying dues. The dues pay for everything from the coffee and snacks at our committee meetings to printing costs of things like t-shirts and fliers that we use for actions.” As a result, more workers signed up and more actions followed.

Food & Retail Workers United (FRWU) Logo

The owner of The Moby Dick has recently decided to sell off the brand. He has been updating their social media presence and trying to take other steps to make the business look as attractive as possible to a buyer. One of the IWW members who works as a cook was recently scrolling through social media and saw that the owner had posted a job opening for a back of house position. The starting pay that was listed was more than a dollar per hour than what any of the current kitchen staff were earning. He immediately took a screenshot and messaged it to the rest of the cooks.

The wage inversion was a breaking point to get the kitchen workers riled up. The next night after closing, the back of the house team marched on the owner. The back of house staff told the owner that they had seen the ad and demanded that they be paid what the posting was offering. The owner was so caught off guard that he didn’t know what to do. In a previous direct action, the workers passed out fliers to all the customers informing them of the labor dispute at the workplace. As a result, the ad placed by the owner was already not bringing in any new hires. The owner knew that last thing he needed when he was trying to sell the brand would be for any further disruption within the company. The owner at once buckled and gave each of the back of house workers a $1.50 raise on the spot.

Food and Retail Workers United (FRWU) is an amalgamation of workers strategically united across retail, food and service industries. As IWW members, we share in the vision of the One Big Union for all workers that will tie the working class together with unbeatable solidarity. As FRWU members, we find power together and organize to win real and lasting change in our industries and throughout society.

FW Graham has been a member of the Detroit GMB and has been organizing restaurant workers since 2012

This article is written in memory of IWW member X-374427, a cook at Moby Dick, who passed away last week.