Union Cooks Up an Organized Dish but Restaurant Workers Won’t Bite


Alice Waters has always thought that her politics were as progressive as her cuisine was creative.

As a student here in the turbulent 1960s, she demonstrated for free speech, struggled to end United States involvement in Vietnam and worked as a Montessori teacher.

In the early 1970s, Waters started a little restaurant called Chez Panisse. Within a decade, the restaurant had become world famous and Waters was the doyenne of California Cuisine, an innovative style of cooking that emphasizes fresh local ingredients. Gradually, her work and that of a handful of other chefs transformed Berkeley into a culinary mecca.


Waters believes that she has not abandoned her past. She donates food to the poor and says one of her ultimate goals as a restaurateur is to provide conditions as pleasant for her workers as she does for her diners.

So it came as a big surprise to her this spring when labor organizers entered the kitchen at Chez Panisse and thrust a union leaflet into her hand. Waters and other restaurateurs in Berkeley’s burgeoning “Gourmet Ghetto” suddenly found themselves the targets of an organizing campaign that accused them of providing sub-standard wages, benefits and working conditions.

By all accounts, it’s a strange labor struggle. Most employees show no sign of wanting the union. They are a varied lot, including psychologists, sculptors, free-lance writers and students happy to have part-time jobs.

Union leaders initially thought that it might be easier to approach some of the owners, whose liberal leanings were presumed to make them more sympathetic to organized labor than their workers.

In addition to Chez Panisse, the union targeted a dozen restaurants, including the 4th Street Grill, run by Susan Nelson, who had been active in the California prison reform movement, and Augusta’s, owned by Bonnie Hughes, who once led a successful union organizing effort at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Union leaders hoped that they could quickly sign up some of those owners, draw some easy publicity and put themselves in a position to take on more difficult targets, like fast-food restaurants.

So far, though, the union has been successful only at Augusta’s and at a very small establishment called the New Orleans Bar and Grill. What once looked to some union organizers like a sure thing has turned into a battle that could last years.

“These people are all in favor of unions in Poland and South Africa, but not when it affects their pocketbooks,” said Danny Cassidy, an organizer for Local 28 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

Cassidy acknowledged that some of the non-union restaurants might be paying wages comparable to wages at union establishments. He said, however, that none has comparable benefit packages. Not one, he said, has a pension plan, a seniority system or a formal grievance procedure, all cornerstones of traditional union contracts.

In response, Nelson and Waters said they pay their workers well and provide medical care, paid vacations and such other fringe benefits as discounts on surplus food, like imported olive oil, and lavish free birthday meals. They acknowledged that they do not have pension plans but said their employees have not asked for such benefits.

In some instances, the battle has been more than a war of words. A fracas erupted on the picket line at Santa Fe Bar and Grill, one of the most successful of the new restaurants, and Cassidy was charged with striking one of the owners, Doyle Moon. Cassidy denied the charge and claimed that the altercation began after Moon tried to run over some pickets with his car.

Nelson, 4th Street’s owner, said union organizers have acted like “thugs.” Nonetheless, she admitted that she has wrestled with her conscience. “My political convictions definitely are being tested,” she said.

The daughter of an FBI agent, Nelson moved to Berkeley in 1964 “to fight in the streets,” she said. She was active in the Students for a Democratic Society and, like Waters, taught at a Montessori school before she got involved in the restaurant world in 1972.

Called a ‘Frumpie’

Her restaurant grosses about $145,000 a month and she has been branded a “Frumpie"--formerly radical upwardly mobile professional--by one of Local 28’s lawyers. But Nelson remains so concerned about her politics that she chided a critic, who had raved about her restaurant, for failing to take note of one particularly unusual characteristic for a Gourmet Ghetto establishment--her racially integrated staff.

Nelson indicated that she would sign a union contract if her staff wanted one. “I have never crossed a picket line,” she said, adding that she has supported grape and lettuce boycotts waged by the United Farm Workers union. Several workers said in interviews, however, that a straw poll showed that staffers had been alienated by union tactics and did not want to be represented by Local 28.

On the other hand, Hughes, Augusta’s owner, agreed to recognize the union without a struggle, even though the restaurant is barely in the black and even though she considers herself a very fair employer. “When you have principles, you have them all the time; otherwise they’re not principles,” Hughes said.

Hughes’ pro-union philosophy is not only unusual among Gourmet Ghetto owners, it also seems to be out of step with many of the restaurants’ employees. When Local 28 tried to sign up workers at the Santa Fe in April, they got such a chilly reception that they shifted gears and threw up what is known as a “prevailing wage” picket line. Such a picket line urges the public not to patronize an establishment because it does not provide wages and benefits that are standard for the area.

‘Certainly Lucrative’

Jeremiah Tower, a highly acclaimed chef who is part owner of the restaurant, angrily denied that his wages were below standard and said that in some categories he pays more than union rates. The picket line also alienated many employees. Some of them responded by putting up their own picket line at Local 28’s hall in Oakland. Neil King, a part-time waiter who recently got a doctorate in psychology, said 80% of the employees signed a petition saying they did not want union representation. Asked what it was like to work at the Santa Fe, King, 38, responded, “reasonable, flexible, certainly lucrative and tasteful.”

Even Gourmet Ghetto employees who are philosophically pro union are not jumping on Local 28’s bandwagon. Pia Stern, a 33-year-old Berkeley artist who works part time at Chez Panisse, led an unsuccessful strike seven years ago at the Bateau Ivre, one of Berkeley’s first avant-garde restaurants. Stern said she thought some Berkeley restaurants needed to be unionized, but not Chez Panisse.

“I couldn’t imagine a better place to waitress,” she said. “The restaurant is run by a mutual effort by everyone, which makes it a marvelous place. No one wants to be an autocrat there. A union might change the feeling of Chez Panisse.”

Reformers in Union

Local 28’s offensive here has taken many people by surprise because for a decade the union had been a threat to no one but its own members. Ray Lane, the local’s chieftain, was imprisoned for embezzling his members’ money. He left the union with a $275,000 civil judgment for attempting to force two women to trade sexual favors for jobs. Lane also failed to service contracts and did hardly any organizing. From 1978 to 1985, membership dwindled from 6,800 to 3,800.

In April, John Martin, a well respected organizer, and a group of reformers took over, vowing to revive the local and to organize all the area’s food workers, be they well-heeled waiters at Chez Panisse or teen-age fry cooks making the minimum wage at a fast food establishment.

“We’re telling people in the Gourmet Ghetto it’s not only in their interest to join the union but that they have a social responsibility to join the union, to see to it that culinary workers are not treated like urban farmhands,” Cassidy said. “In a sense, we’re telling the workers in the Gourmet Ghetto you have an obligation to all food workers.”