Volume 21, Number 3

I Know What You Did Last Saturday Night:
What Happened When I Tried to Organize My Coworkers at a Restaurant in Pennsylvania

Penelope Gristelfink

February 27, 2017

Two days ago, I watched an NLRB official stack ballots against and in favor of union representation at the farm-to-table restaurant where I am a server. I started and led the campaign for union representation. The votes came back 37 to 2 against representation, the next-to-most-total failure possible. Penultimate defeat.

Even though I knew what the outcome would be, during the vote count I felt sick, hot, flushed and reeling.

Thirty-seven times I heard the word ‘NO’ destroy an idea I had worked for five months to inspire, nurture and protect among my coworkers. (There were 3 challenged votes, also no’s by all accounts.) That idea was that the subminimum wage for us tipped workers had reached a point where it deserved to be called unjust and inhumane.

You see, when restaurant servers are paid as little as $2.83/hour (the state minimum in Pennsylvania), a second, legal loophole is deployed, one that allows restaurant owners to usurp even that paltry pay. Actually, there are a few loopholes, as restauranteurs expect that guests will subsidize all the cost of servers, and that servers will in turn subsidize the cost of support staff: bussers, food runners and bartenders. Some of these support staff are paid as little as $5/hour.

How can this be legal? Everyone always asks me that. Restaurant owners from other parts of the country will swear that this arrangement is illegal. These loopholes are codified at the state level, however. Restauranteurs in states with these minimum wage exemptions for tipped workers can claim that by pooling tips−taking cuts on a percentage basis of how much food and drink a server sells (not how much that server actually takes in in tips)−they are making up the difference between the minimum wage and the $5/hour for other staff. Restauranteurs also pass on much more hidden, subtle fees to servers, charging them out of their tips for using credit card terminals, charging them for aprons, books and equipment. They basically nickel and dime the shit out of their staff.

The plain truth about subminimum wage and tip pooling (called ‘tipouts’) is that the servers lose more in tipouts and hidden fees than the restaurant pays them in wages. Not only are servers living off their tips because this $2.83/hour is just a legal figleaf, but also the restaurants they work for are taking back as much as 20 to 25 percent of their tips. Most of the time, the net direction of cashflow is from servers out of their tips to the restaurant owners. A server to whom guests authorize a total of $111 in tips will only walk away with about $80 to $90, losing $26 or more of their tips on a shift where they are only paid in wages $2.83 x 7, or $19.81.

Part of the “idea” as we called it before the campaign became known to management (we were too scared to use the U-word on the floor) was that even hourly kitchen workers were living in poverty and maybe unionization would help change that. Many people excluded from the tip pool were making as little as $9 to $11/hour.

Over the five months of the campaign, I talked to as many of the workers as I could. All of them produced stories of hardship that made it clear that living on these wages was a cruel, sick joke. I talked to a line cook who could not be present for the birth of his child because Harvest wouldn't let him use a sick day for that. I talked to a dishwasher who was mad because he didn't get a shift meal, and he could not afford to buy food. Many servers worked sick because we had no sick days, and still others had no health insurance because we could not afford it.

Some of the hardship stories were replicated in my life, so I trusted these accounts.  

In October, I compiled these stories and put them beside my own in a scathing letter to our CEO, Dave Magrogan.

Dave Magrogan (DMG for short) is an Irish Catholic who grew up poor, having to move with his single mom “basically every time the rent went up.” His rags-to-riches American ascension story is well-documented in glowing profile pieces in area magazines such as Suburban Life. It’s part of his employee orientation speech, too. He’s a big fan of the book The Secret and the New Age philosophy called “the law of attraction.” He wrote a spinoff self-help book, Do It Rhino Style, and tried to launch himself as a motivational speaker. The world is full of only two types of people, he says: ‘rhinos’, who charge at their goals, are incapable of moving backward and who solve problems head-on, and ‘cows’: stagnant and whiny, who graze on the successes of others and often call out sick. He put himself through chiropractic school working in restaurants, then he got “bored” with medicine and opened a series of chain-restaurant brands. He told us in an anti-union meeting that his grandfather was a Molly Maguire, that his grandfather’s life had been “worth less than a donkey” to the coal mine operators. He said unions like the Molly Maguires had “put people in graves,” but they were once necessary to an entirely different class of worker. We restaurant workers were not entitled to unionization, he said, because our jobs would not kill us. No one was falling over dead from working behind the bar. I guess hell hath no fury like a self-made man with a chip on his shoulder since childhood.

I had sent my outrage letter not to Dave Magrogan, who I believed would have fired me immediately, but to interested workers I thought I could trust. I had been doing this since October. The letter cited how I left my job as a non-union front desk agent for Marriott hotels to come waitress for Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar in Radnor, PA because my hiring manager told me I could make $600 a week in tips, and this was common for servers at the Harvest Glen Mills, PA, location, which he had managed for six years. Not only did that not happen, but I increased my working hours at Harvest in the first few months it opened, working three doubles a week, seven to nine shifts, more than 50 hours a week, on my feet for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch with no sanctioned break time. My income plummeted from roughly $435 a week to less than $300.

It was deliberate ruthlessness on management’s part, because they chronically overstaffed the floor, favoring perfect service standards over their employees’ well-being, and they said as much. They said they would put 7 to 10 servers on the floor even when reservations of 40 or so could not support this, because “You don’t staff for the night you are going to have. You staff for the night you want to have.” At $2.83/hour, they could always afford to overstaff this much.

All the while, they exhorted us to do the job because we loved to “serve,” not for the money. Positive thinking, this “law of attraction” stuff, would save us, they said. Then they lined us up like schoolchildren to inspect our uniforms.

I lost my car. I let a lot of things go, medical stuff, student loans, any and all debt payments.

I thought about the one and only year I ever earned more than $34,000, and it was from cocktail waitressing at a Marriott resort on St. Thomas. I was union then, and I earned via contract $7.70/hour from the resort, so there was some safeguard when tips fell short or when occupancy dropped off. I never had to tip out more than 10 percent, and it was based on my tips, not my sales.


Waiters are sort of the blue-collar equivalent of the day traders of old. They have an addict-like mentality about money that makes them strongly favor getting paid by the day rather than collecting a steady weekly paycheck. They feel some security in earning tips—the harder you work, the more you get—but this sense of security is false. Immediacy of pay makes them feel in control, when overall, over time, the variables that affect business performance are never much within their control. They have little say in how they are treated, which is as disposable, unskilled, easily dismissed servants. They lie to themselves and others about their incomes and about the industry, portraying it as abundant with opportunity for quick, easy money ($300 to $400 a day). The actual data on the hospitality industry does not bear any of this out. They tell each other fantasy stories about finding the “next gig,” the “right gig,” the glorious sums of money they made at their former “gigs.” They believe they can cozy up to management and manipulate their superiors into making things more comfortable for them alone if need be. Each of them seems to believe that they alone have a superior and unique work ethic. In practice, this belief results in slavish behavior when managers are around and a lot of bitching and whining when they are not.

I am guilty of all this faulty reasoning. Or, at least, I was.


Almost all of the servers who had opened the restaurant with me fled, some after as little as a few weeks. They fled from anger at having been lied to, but mostly they fled from desperation, from not making rent.

Over the course of the campaign, I built a packet of emails with data and video messaging using YouTube videos produced by the worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United and other sources: TED talks by Nick Hanauer, inoculating videos about union busting, a video about how the origin of tipping is actually that hotel and restaurant operators after the Civil War refused to pay any wage at all to freed blacks, so tipping became a customary way around that particular racist indignity. I arranged for a United Steelworkers local to take on the campaign and tried earnestly to get my coworkers to attend meetings, often late at night, after the dinner shift, at nearby diners. It worked. People were pissed.  

In late December, managers discovered the campaign and began cornering people and asking them questions. It backfired. We got even more union authorization cards signed than ever before. The manager primarily responsible for these interrogations and for spewing anti-union rhetoric got fired and replaced. A general manager/managing partner had to go without salary and return to another location. Manager salaries, Dave Magrogan admitted when I questioned him in an anti-union meeting, had been taking up more than half of labor costs.

Managers fired without cause at least five people they suspected of being sympathetic to the campaign or, at least, vocal about the issues. Dave Magrogan hired a union-busting consultant, a Cuban man named Amed Santana. Amed said he had been a labor organizer for 30 years before he turned anti-union consultant. Every day for weeks, Harvest employees had to attend mandatory meetings with Amed, who made collective bargaining sound like it would be a terrible detriment to them, made the union appear to be forceful and corrupt, emphasizing strikes and dues and organized crime. Managers forbade me to attend these meetings once I had visibly come out as the leader of the campaign. They padded the voter list with brand-new hires or people they transferred from other locations. At election time, at least 12 voters had either never worked a shift before the legal cut-off date or had no exposure to the campaign or the issues that drove it at Harvest Radnor.

Dave Magrogan told us the restaurant had run him $380,000 in the hole. All the while, the company was opening new locations. He said all we had to do was hang on until guest volume climbed from 1,600 guests a week to 2,000. Someone leaked him the emails, and he posted a personal rebuttal to my outrage letter on the kitchen door. In it, he stated that he had consulted his attorney, who had regrettably advised him that I had “free speech” rights.


If you think bargaining with right-wing corporate elites who have astronomical and entrenched greed in their heads is the hard part, think again. No matter how little leverage or cultural support you may think labor has at the table, no matter how David and Goliath things may look, especially now under Trump, much more difficult is getting there. When it comes to organizing, the hard part is influencing the workers under them. It is enough to drive a person sane. It is enough to make a person loathe his or her coworkers.


The restaurant workers fell into two categories: young, educated kids working their way through Bachelors or Masters degrees and uneducated, “career” servers or line cooks or dishwashers.

My point to the transient, aspirant class of workers who said they didn’t have to fight was that they were taking a highly economically irrational position by not going union. You can be stripped of wealth and exploited as a white-collar worker as much as a blue-collar worker. As an adult in my 30s, I had to tell kids in their teens and 20s that the only economic security they would have later in life would be their own personal savings—money in the bank, baby!—and not to buy into these false notions that they must, they must accept less than the livable standard, even for temporary, no-brainer work, even while they were living rent-free with parents or using student loans as spending money. People at the host stand started off at $9/hour. I made $8.50/hour cooking for a health food store on the Main Line as far back as 2007. They eagerly agreed at first, but, with their “no” votes, they seemed to turn totally deaf ears to me.

The uncomfortable aspect inherent in being a déclassée intellectual is that you know better. You know that the corny, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps rhetoric hasn’t worked. I have a friend with a Masters in English who has lived in shelters and sold her own blood plasma to survive while adjunct teaching at four different colleges. You know the status quo is bogus because it will bleed further into disparity and decline. Slow bleeds don’t produce as many pessimists as crises, or as they should produce. The water is warm and rosy with trickle-down casualties as it rises to a boiling temp. Slow bleeds only fascinate people on the fringes, who look like Cassandras to the rest of the population. If you are one of these Cassandras, you are more inclined because of your subjectivity and downward mobility to take a step back and go look at objective data, examine larger trends, parse things out in the long run. But you are still too rare to make a difference. Your education and intelligence make you a visionary, but your poverty and shame make you intolerably angry in a society that has given itself up completely to fascist norms, traded facts in for corporate propaganda, and that makes righteous indignation appear as a mental defect.

The “back-of-house” career service people seemed to have what Martin Luther King Jr. termed in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” the “degenerating sense of nobodiness.” The message underlying their words to me, that “They’ll never let that happen here” or “There are a lot worse places to work” or “That’s the going rate for dishwashers.” The message was always that it was a novel, alien and suspect idea that any of us mattered enough to go union. We were not suffering. We were not subject to injustice. Those things could only visit or touch people who were important to begin with.

In a dazzling combination of these two different attitudes, a line cook told me that we couldn’t “just insist on being paid more.” According to Maria, there is no element of free will in free market economics. She and her partner are both line cooks at Harvest. They have had all kinds of trouble with scheduling and procuring affordable childcare to cope with raising their infant daughter. They recently applied for welfare benefits to help with that task.

“I really just don’t see what a union has to do with working in a restaurant,” she said.

I pointed out that all kinds of workers were union. Nurses, teachers, pilots, journalists.

“But those are all necessary occupations. This is a luxury,” she said, pointing to the pastries she was piping.

“A job is not a luxury,” I said. “Janitors are union. The people who wash and deliver our linens are union. I was a union cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t do this for the money,” Maria replied, changing tack. “I do this because I love it. If I wanted to make more money, I’d go work in one of the offices upstairs.”

The restaurant is in an office park devoted to financial trading and real estate firms.

Maria and her partner are not the only ones in the Harvest ‘family’ to apply for welfare benefits. The catchphrase ‘the American Dream’ is actually code for a common vision of the middle class as prosperous via mediocrity. Maria’s effervescent, imaginary potential, her self-image, will not suffice to feed and clothe her child, but neither will her wages. So I will have to, with my taxpayer dollars. And so will you.


The high turnover rate erased inroads as soon as I made them. I would get four union authorization cards signed, then five of my coworkers would get fired or leave.

The historical defeats and the longshot odds were drilled into me by skeptical, reluctant, lukewarm at best, union administrators who self-described as “jaded,” “hard” and “callous.”

The sense of defeat can be so overwhelming, one of them said, that the first time it happened to him−this kind of landslide victory by a company where he had 100 percent of cards signed, then saw a total reversal of support for the union when the election came—he said he almost killed himself.

I had that feeling, yesterday, and Saturday night. I will probably spend a couple of days bedridden and reading Anne Sexton. Because the defeat is so social in nature. Much sentimental hullyballoo was spun out of the anti-union campaign from the company’s side. That company pep rally spirit can sour and spill over into shaming and bullying. And it did. And it has.


Instead of using the union swag I had bought them, my coworkers donned ‘rhino’ pins, pewter brooches in the shape of his mascot animal that Dave Magrogan has managers give out as rewards for good behavior. My coworkers shunned me, stood me up, refused to give me rides to the train station, made snide, triumphal comments, and some of these comments came from card signers.

One harassed me in texts and emails before and after the vote. Josh was the most visible and vocal supporter of the campaign. He came with me into our general manager’s office, and we offered to explain the motivations behind the campaign. We were rebuffed with no small amount of contempt.

Josh texted me about voting no a week before the vote, but omitted that he was simultaneously sending out a HotSchedules message to every one of our coworkers except for me revoking his support. He called the campaign and me “negative energy” and said that none of them understood my “true motivations” from the outset (when, in fact, every one of them had been given access to my grievances in emails containing my outrage letter to DMG). He couldn’t wait for the election to be over, he wrote. Meanwhile, he texted me:

J: Save yourself the embarrassment, don't come in anymore

Me: Speak for yourself. I have to see this through. What you are seeing is exactly what I anticipated. It's the orchestrated power of anti-union propaganda.

J: You lost.

J: (again about 9 minutes later): You lost

J: If the vote were held, it's 49-1

After the vote, after his attempts to get me to quit failed, Josh kept emailing and texting me. He suggested that, instead of being mad at him, I direct my anger toward everyone else, “the 19 other card signers who lied to you.” He repeatedly called himself and our coworkers “cowards,” but somehow gave himself the moral high ground for warning me. He “suffered through it,” he wrote, and he “stood by me.”

The irony of the situation last Saturday night was that the betrayal of my coworkers, more than 20 of whom had misled me privately with smiles and thumbs up and told me over the phone that they would definitely vote yes, that betrayal was so total that—with there being only one other yes vote—all of the liars were immediately exposed. They seemed truly surprised and chagrined to be so exposed. They became sheepish, shame-faced and cautious around me. They spoke to me in whispers. A few tried to apologize for voting no. They had this tone like, But we’re still friends, right?

The schadenfreude that Dave Magrogan and the rest of management unloaded after the vote was crass and extreme. He called me a “mole.” Part of the union busting strategy all along had been for his consultant to tell everyone that I was a paid, underground agitator, a ‘salt.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. He decried that I had made promises to card signers that they could make between $7 and $15/hour, and he claimed that was the only reason any of this had happened. He did so in a sneering tone that made it sound like such figures for working class people were a dirty, farfetched outrage. He loudly bemoaned that he had to spend $30,000 for a labor lawyer to fight the union when he could have spent this money at the outset, before the campaign began, on better wages and benefits. He and his managers rallied everyone together in the private dining room and popped open champagne. After the dinner shift, they served everyone free drinks at the bar. Everyone appeared to be smashingly happy and self-congratulatory. I was the bad seed, and I had been resoundingly cast out. Hooray!

As I left the bar Saturday night, I scanned their faces. A few people were wincing at the spectacular and cruel nature of what they were doing, at the manifest, bobble-headed caving to authority and peer pressure, but not many.

Gullibility is the downside of being uncommonly empathetic.

Predictably, since the vote, two people have come to me and claimed to be the other yes vote. I told both of them, “Thank you.” I told one of them, a dishwasher, “If you ever need money for food again, come and ask me.”


The question remains: if we unionists cannot organize workers this distressed and exploited, who literally pay their employers to go to work, then what can we do? Who can we organize?

Handling this campaign made clear to me the difference between unionism and activism. A series of grandstanding, sacrificial lambs such as myself will not save the working class. Neither will the working class save itself. Only some synthesis between the Occupy-style, grassroots, activist nerds and the old-school union bureaucrats will help us.

I really don’t want to go to work today at Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar, but I will. I would like nothing more than to never see or hear from my coworkers again. I consider them treacherous, backstabbing, weak, unimaginative, chickenshit morons, who, in spite of all that, deserve better treatment. But I need the money. Today I’d rather be a farm animal than a waitress. The pigs and chickens and cows we serve are cage-free, and debt-free. The servers who serve them are not, but last Saturday night 40 of them lifted a toast to the barnyard door that had been opened, then shut. When called to slaughter, it seems, even a ‘rhino’ will do what he or she is told.