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3 Dishing It Out Waitresses and the Making of Their Unions in San Francisco, 1900-1941
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Dishing It Out
Waitresses and the Making of Their Unions in San Francisco, 1900-1941

Dorothy Sue Cobble

Editor's Introduction

[Where] waitresses' unions are strong, the business is on a high plane, the hard work fairly paid and the working women who are engaged in it are self-respecting and respected by all who know them. They are distinctly high class, and so it can be here, if the girls will get together and work.
—Anonymous journalist writing for the Independent in 1908

We are all working as we never did before, and our days and hours are forgotten. Our feet are sore, our bones ache, our throats are tired, but we feel great because we are getting something done.
—Gertrude Sweet, International organizer, HERE, April 13, 1937

The contagious spread of trade unionism in early-twentieth-century San Francisco was not confined to skilled male workers; unskilled and semi-skilled workers also achieved a considerable degree of organization. As early as 1902, there were two thousand organized culinary workers in San Francisco, a significant and growing number of them female waitresses. The waitresses of San Francisco founded the first California affiliate of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) in 1901. Subsequently, the problems of operating in a union with men led the San Francisco waitresses to form one of the first separate locals in the country in 1906.

The fortunes of HERE, and those of the women within the union, waxed and waned in the early decades of the twentieth century. By the late 1930s, however, the majority of hotels and motels were union houses, and 95 percent of the twenty-five hundred restaurants were organized.

In this extract from her book Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century , Dorothy Sue Cobble explores the vicissitudes of women's trade unionism from the early twentieth century until World War II. She argues that from the outset waitresses defined their goals in explicitly self-conscious ways, announcing their intention to "further the rights of working women" and to bring about economic and political equality with men. Like male waiters, they had a deep sense of craft identity that was crucial to the success of their organizing efforts. During the 1930s, Cobble contends, the success of the longshoremen's strike, in


particular, helped to galvanize both male and female restaurant workers. With its eighteen thousand members, the union also helped to organize some of San Francisco's largest downtown department stores.

The historic barriers to female unionism before the 1930s were formidable: women's lack of permanent wage status, the ambivalence emanating from a trade union movement overwhelmingly male, the class tensions between female wage earners and their elite sisterly allies, and the objective difficulties in organizing "unskilled" workers with little strike leverage.[1] Moreover, as recent scholars have argued, many women workers may have preferred to exert collective power in ways other than unionization.[2] Yet waitresses not only chose unionization as their vehicle for expressing militancy, but they also managed to build all-female union institutions in these early years that provided them with an impressive degree of power and dignity.

Waitresses turned to unionization as early as the 1880s, forming separate all-female unions as well as locals that included male waiters and other food service crafts. With the help of the Federated Trades Council of San Francisco and the International Workingmen's Association, San Francisco waitresses organized a separate local on May 25, 1886, while Los Angeles waitresses united with male culinary workers in requesting that the White Cooks, Waiters and Employees Protective Union of the Pacific Coast charter a mixed-gender and craft local. Many of these earliest locals affiliated briefly with the Knights of Labor, but by the mid-1890s most had either disbanded or cast their lot with the newly emerging American Federation of Labor (AFL).[3]

In April of 1891, the AFL chartered the Waiters and Bartenders National Union with an initial membership of 450. The Waiters and Bartenders


National Union, later to change its name to the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), made little progress until the first years of the twentieth century: in 1899 the total membership of the union had not passed a thousand. By World War I, however, membership climbed to sixty-five thousand: HERE had established itself as a permanent fixture in the industry.[4] The Industrial Workers of the World also experimented with organizing the "foodstuff" industry in this era but with notably meager results. IWW culinary locals sprang up in a few Western IWW-dominated mining and lumbering towns, and the IWW inspired strikes in New York and other immigrant centers, but their organizations were short-lived and geared primarily to male waiters and cooks.[5]

Choosing Separatism

Substantial gains in organizing female culinary workers did not occur until after the founding of separate HERE-affiliated waitress organizations. The first permanent waitress union, Local 240 in Seattle, received its charter on March 31, 1900. Over the next decade, HERE waitress organizations took root in at least a half dozen other communities. By the World War I era, at the height of the movement for separate female organizations, more than seventeen permanent waitress locals existed, and approximately 70 percent of organized HERE waitresses belonged to separate locals.

The impetus for separate gender organization among women workers has been poorly understood by scholars. Although many unions barred women from membership or relegated them to second-class citizenship, separate-gender organization was not merely a product of nor a reaction to the discrimination of male workers. In many industries, the sex segregation of work decreed that membership in locals organized by trade or department would be either predominantly one sex or the other. Moreover, although a consensus on separatism as a strategy never existed among working women, in certain periods and in certain trades, women themselves pushed for separate-sex organizations.[6]

Waitresses had strong affinity for separatism. They initiated numerous separate locals before the 1930s, and their commitment to separatism sustained many of these locals into the 1970s. In part, their preference for separatism derived from their ethnic and cultural orientations. As Susan Glenn has suggested, Americanized, native-born women tended to be greater supporters of separatism because of their unencumbrance with the strong community and class ties of recent immigrant women and their closer connection with the native-born variety of feminism rooted in the separate-spheres traditions of American middle-class womanhood.[7] The


particular workplace experiences and family status of waitresses also nourished their inclinations to organize autonomous, all-female locals—locals that could address "female" concerns and provide women with an "initiating," leadership role.

The desire of waitresses for separate organization prevailed over the mixed-gender model suggested by the organization of food service work. In contrast to many workplaces where divisions along sex and craft lines were synonymous, female and male servers belonged to the same craft. Simply following the craft logic of the food service workplace would have resulted in a mixed-sex craft division in which waiters and waitresses belonged to the same craft local. The formation of separate waitress locals necessitated a rationale beyond craft identity: the legitimacy of gender concerns had to be put forward.

Moreover, female culinary workers faced opposition from male unionists who supported integrating women into mixed-sex locals or organizing them into separate but subordinate branches of the male local. A separate, autonomous female local would create problems. Some men feared conflict over wage scales, work rules, and distribution of jobs; others were reluctant to lose dues-paying members.[8] The International union pursued neutrality: it officially encouraged organization by craft "regardless of race, color, sex, or nationality" but allowed for the formation of separate organizations based on race and sex. Section 49 of the 1905 HERE Constitution read: "there shall not be more than one white or colored local of the same craft in any city or town, except waitresses who may obtain a charter." In short, women workers had to take the initiative in establishing their own locals, and they did so.[9]

Organized male culinary workers seldom erected formal constitutional barriers to the entry of women, but their reluctance to organize women retarded the growth of waitress organizations and at times was as much of an obstacle as the hostility of employers. Women HERE members from their first days of union participation appealed to their male counterparts for organizing support, but the majority of men resisted these calls to action until the 1930s.

The problems of operating within mixed locals led San Francisco waitresses to conclude that their interests as women trade unionists would be better served through separate-sex organizations where they could define their own organizational goals and practices. Much to the surprise of the waiter officials of San Francisco's Local 30, not only the bartenders but "the waitresses too" began "asking for an organization" in 1901. By April, sixty-three waitresses had formed a branch of the waiters' union; five


years later, having "decided that a separate organization was desirable," they petitioned their male co-workers for "a local of their own." Once the waiters voted approval, the new two hundred and fifty member local installed its first officers on February 21, 1906.[10]

The San Francisco local enjoyed continuity and vigor in its principal leaders. The waitresses elected Minnie Andrews as president and first business agent. Andrews guided the local through its first decade, later becoming one of the first women organizers on the International staff. Louise Downing LaRue—a firebrand agitator for women's suffrage and a veteran officer of the mixed culinary locals in St. Louis and San Francisco—took a leading role as did Maud Younger, a native-born San Francisco heiress (known locally as the "millionaire waitress") who devoted her life to suffrage and social reform. By the 1920s and 1930s, the reins of leadership passed to Montana-born Frankie Behan, a 1922 transfer from Seattle who served as an officer into the 1950s, and Lettie Howard, who devoted thirty-nine years to the union, broken only by her absence in 1919 when she helped organize waitresses in Los Angeles. There were others such as Julia Marguerite Finkenbinder, Elizabeth Kelley, and Laura Molleda, almost all of whom were native born and of Northern European background.[11]

The first waitress locals encountered considerable obstacles in sustaining their fledgling organizations. In addition to the ambivalence of their own culinary brothers, they faced bitter feuds with employers, condescension from middle-class "uplift" or moral reform groups, and divisions in their own ranks. Nevertheless, many locals weathered these trials and established themselves permanently in the industry.

Typically, female locals faced their greatest battles with employers after they demonstrated significant bargaining power. Employers often underestimated the organizational potential of their female employees and, taken by surprise, were forced to grant concessions. These initial union victories, however, sparked employer counterorganization and open-shop campaigns.

The San Francisco waitresses in their first two decades experienced cycles of advance followed by employer backlash and defeat. After the union began pressing for the ten-hour day in 1901, the local Restaurant Keepers Association gained the backing of the San Francisco Employer Association and precipitated a strike. After enjoining union picketing, the owners held out for six months, operating their restaurants with scab labor. The union lost considerable membership—union waitresses had trouble getting jobs, and some were forced to leave town or assume false names—but the local


followed the strike defeat with a remarkable period of rebuilding. In part, the unprecedented surge in membership resulted from the waitresses' decision to pursue "more subtle means than direct action," according to one early authority on the union. The Waitress Union dedicated itself to an educational campaign that brought results in both working conditions and increased membership. Although many restaurants refused to bargain or sign agreements, by May of 1902, a handful of establishments instituted working conditions in conformity with the standard 1902 Waitress Wage Scales and Working Agreement: employment of union members only; six-day week; and $8 a week for day work, $9 for night work. In December 1903, the waitresses survived a second open-shop campaign and lockout by the employers. With the assistance of Mayor Eugene Schmitz, recently elected by San Francisco's Union Labor party, they emerged victorious with a new one-year agreement that reduced hours to nine a day.[12]

By the time the separate waitress charter became official in 1906, union waitresses had signed up a majority of their co-workers. Relying on "silent picketing" to foil court injunctions and the new union strategy of "monthly working buttons" worn conspicuously by all union waitresses—an idea that can "accomplish . . . what the Union label has secured for the printers and other craftsmen"—the local steadily increased its numbers and influence, even adding cafeteria waitresses to its ranks after 1910.[13] In 1916, however, when San Francisco culinary workers struck for the eight-hour day, the employers regained the upper hand. The strike, dubbed a "complete failure" by more than one analyst, was called off after three months, but not before membership defections left the Waitress Union reeling. In particular, the cafeteria women disregarded the strike order and remained on the job. As a result, the Waitress Union lost the cafeteria workers and did not regain them until the 1930s.[14]

Some waitress locals disappeared completely during these years. In New York City, Waitresses' Local 769 had the support of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and such well-known reformers as San Francisco's Maud Younger, but it went under in 1908 after only a few years of activity.[15] In 1912 and 1913, the International Hotel Workers Union, a syndicalist-inspired, independent organization, agitated among New York's hotel and restaurant workers, drawing in a few waitresses. IWW organizers Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Joseph Ettor, who lent their talents to the organization, urged novel tactics such as exposing adulterated food and "scientific sabotage"—defined variously as dropping trays of food on the floor, spilling "gravy on the shirt-fronts of well-dressed patrons," and confusing orders—but few if any concessions were wrested


from employers. The WTUL picked up the refrain for a separate waitress union in 1914, but a credible organization was not in place until 1919.[16]

Waitress unionism revived during World War I. Long-established HERE locals gathered steam, and new HERE units such as Local 729, representing the employees of the Harvey eating houses, sprang to life. In Minneapolis, department store waitresses held out for $9 a day and a guaranteed return to their posts in the tea room, preferring "to be silent picket[s] and pace the sidewalk with [their] message than be turned into inexperienced and inefficient glove or ribbon sales[women]."[17]

Most locals incurred losses in the labor turmoil following the war, but by the mid-twenties membership resumed its upward spiral. By 1927, femaie membership in HERE had more than quadrupled from pre-World War I figures. Women now represented more than a fifth of the total membership of the International union, a sizable leap from 5.4 percent in 1910 and 9.3 percent in 1920,[18] and for the first time, women outnumbered men in some of the mixed culinary unions, prompting workers in the industry to label these communities "girls' towns."[19] These changes resulted partially from the resiliency of the female unions during this period and the feminization of food service work; the declining vitality of the male-dominated locals also contributed to the changing sex ratio.

The advent of Prohibition and the employer campaigns of the 1920s cut deeply into the male membership of HERE. Having peaked in 1918, the number of male culinary unionists dropped precipitously after the passage of the 18th Amendment and plunged downward throughout the 1920s, hitting bottom in 1933. The 18th Amendment, in effect nationwide by January 1920, wrecked the all-male bartending constituency within the union. Numerous waiter and cook locals also folded up for lack of membership and finances. After the passage of Prohibition, employers who previously had been sympathetic to unionism because of the higher profit margins accompanying liquor service adopted tough bargaining stances. Speakeasies, operating in a subterranean fashion, did not yield to traditional organizing methods. The public attention generated by unionization usually resulted in the bar or restaurant closing.[20] In addition to these industry-specific problems, the union faced a climate inhospitable to any brand of unionism. The American Plan destroyed locals across the country, and employers' liberal use of court injunctions, yellow-dog contracts, and employer-dominated culinary associations stymied union advance at point after point.[21]

In addition to facing the hostility of employers and the lackluster support of potential allies, waitress unionists contended with internal divisions


among their own ranks. Before the New Deal, some white waitresses—fully 90 percent of the trade in this period—reached out to black and Asian women, but on the whole, their attitude was ambivalent and even hostile. Female culinary activists were neither more nor less progressive on this issue than their brother unionists.

Most white waitress officials, like their male counterparts, encouraged black women either to form separate black waitress locals or to join mixed-gender all-black locals. Separate locals of black waitresses sprang up in Philadelphia in 1918 and in Atlantic City in 1919.[22] A small number of waitress locals also accepted black women, at least temporarily. The Chicago waitresses in their earliest days organized black women and white into the same local, and the Butte Women's Protective Union (WPU) prided itself in "not drawing the color line"—in 1907 three of their members were from "the colored race." But most, like San Francisco, restricted union membership to "white women only" until the 1930s.[23]

In contrast to the ambiguous policy toward blacks, culinary unionists preached a stridently unambivalent message to Asian workers: they were unwelcome in the industry and in the union. The stated International position was that "no member of our International be permitted to work with asiatics, and that no house card or bar card or union button be displayed in such a place." For years, the frontispiece of the national culinary magazine proclaimed, "Skilled, Well-paid Bartenders and Culinary Workers Wear Them [union buttons]. Chinks, Japs, and Incompetent Labor Don't." Indeed, one of the most promising organizing strategies in this period was to gain sympathy for union labor by advertising the link between union-made products and white labor. Local unions frequently reported successful boycotts of restaurants employing Asian help and the subsequent implementation of contracts requiring the discharge of all Asian workers. Restaurant owners simply were not allowed to bring their Asian employees into the union.[24]

Female culinary activists shared these prejudices against Asian workers. Waitress organizer Delia Hurley spent a considerable amount of her time speaking to unionists in other trades, beseeching them to honor HERE boycotts of restaurants employing Chinese and Japanese help. "We laid special stress on the injury these people were doing our organization, and that the members of our local were being dispensed with . . . through the inability of proprietors . . . to compete with these chinks." In Butte, where in the 1890s a successful union-led boycott of establishments employing Chinese had reduced the numbers of Chinese in the service trades, the WPU still refused house cards to the popular Chinese "noodle parlours" in the 1920s and insisted that white girls seek employment only in


non-Asian restaurants. Women HERE leaders spoke fervently against a resolution introduced in the 1920s by San Francisco's Hugo Ernst that would have allowed admittance of Asians who were American citizens. Ernst's resolution was resoundingly defeated.[25]

Nonetheless, because only a small proportion of waitresses were black or Asian, the exclusionary policies practiced by most female locals did not interfere substantially with the successful organizing of white waitresses. Exclusionary waiter and cook unions suffered more from unorganized nonwhite competitors than did waitress locals because employers who hired black and Asian front-service personnel preferred men. In fact, in the short run, racial exclusionary policies may have solidified the ranks of white waitresses and hence facilitated their organizing.

Divisions among waitresses based on marital status, economic circumstance, and age hampered the organization of white waitresses more than cultural or ethnic divisions. Time and again, veteran organizers complained of the antiunion attitudes of the part-time married workers, the young waitresses, and the summer-only workers. After years of organizing, Hurley realized "the injury being done our organization by a certain set of women workers, viz, the short day workers, of whom most are married women who pretend they are only using their spare time, and have no desire to do anything that would further the interest of women workers." Another waitress organizer defined the problem as the naiveté of younger women who, upon first entering the trade, considered their work outside the home to be temporary. The new workers are young and "don't feel much responsibility for what happens to other people, and they don't look far ahead. 'It isn't worthwhile to join the union,' they say, 'because we will soon get married and quit working.' That's what they think now. A lot of them come back later, and want a job, and then they see what it means to the older women who still must work." According to a waitress business agent in Atlantic City, two classes of women undermined standards there: the school teachers working temporarily over the summer and "the kind . . . very popular with the men folks" that she chose not to describe by name.[26]

Nevertheless, waitress organizations suffered less from this problem than women's locals in other trades. The majority of waitresses not only worked year-round and full-time but also perceived their work status as permanent and their work as essential to their economic survival and that of their families. This economic stake in their work underlay their trade identification and made it one of the more significant allegiances in their lives. Moreover, the impact of part-time and summer workers was minimized by their peripheral status in the trade. Significantly, the short-hour


girls were married or living at home, whereas the long-hour girls were self-supporting single or divorced women.[27] This segregation of the industry by family and economic status meant that waitresses with "problem attitudes" were concentrated in certain peripheral sectors and were not a factor in organizing campaigns involving year-round hotels or full-service restaurants in which the staff was predominantly long-hour employees. "One-meal girls" did not compete directly with the long-hour waitresses and rarely were used as replacements in strike situations; in large part, they were not available or did not desire full-time employment.

In sum, although waitress solidarity was strained and sometimes broken by internal dissension, waitresses succeeded in forging sufficient unity to sustain unionism. In some circumstances, the union-oriented majority ignored the dissenters in their ranks and organized despite the disinterest of their "problem" co-workers. In other situations, white waitresses chose to exclude their Asian and black co-workers and organized in opposition to their nonwhite sisters. Nevertheless, in some notable instances, such as in Chicago, the ties of craft and gender overcame the differences of race, ethnicity, age, and family status, uniting all the sisters in the craft.

Victories on the Political Front

Unlike their brother AFL unionists, waitresses devoted a considerable portion of their energies to the pursuit of protective legislation in the pre-New Deal era. Many actively lobbied for maximum hour legislation and minimum wage laws.[28] Thus, they were not adverse to parting ways with the larger labor movement and asserting what they perceived as the particular interests of their craft and of their sex. They were pragmatists, however, rather than ideologues. The survival of their organization took precedence over advancing the interests of working-class women as a whole. Moreover, their position on protective legislation was determined by the economic, political, and social circumstances in which they operated rather than deriving from an overarching, universal belief concerning the role of the state. Where they perceived the law as beneficial to their trade, their support held firm. In other less propitious instances, they condemned protective laws. In short, waitresses were neither voluntarist nor anti-voluntarist in regard to legislative matters, but adjusted their philosophy to the exigencies of their particular situation. By winning victories in the legislative arena, waitress locals demonstrated their effectiveness as reform organizations and created among unorganized waitresses a new respect for the power of collective activity.


Waitresses needed little prompting to join the movement for maximum hour legislation that peaked in the decade before World War I. Indeed, although middle-class women's organizations spearheaded the campaign nationwide, waitresses and their sisters in working-class female organizations took the lead in states such as Washington, California, and Illinois. Waitress activists initiated legislative reform, shepherded bills through their state legislatures, and in many cases celebrated ensuing victories.[29]

In California, working women such as Hannah Nolan of the Laundry Workers' Union, Margaret Seaman of the Garment Workers, and Louise LaRue of the Waitresses were the chief speakers in favor of passage of the 1911 hours bill. Their principal arguments centered on preserving the health of working women, reducing the percentage of workers with tuberculosis, and protecting women's child-bearing functions. When the hotel proprietors challenged the law in court, winning a victory in the California lower courts, Louise LaRue responded: "We are sorry he [the lower court judge] isn't a woman and had to walk 10 to 12 hours a day and carry several pounds . . ., then perhaps he would realize that not half of the women who work in dining rooms are in condition physically to become mothers of the future generation."[30]

In contrast to the enthusiasm shown over maximum hour laws, waitresses were less certain of the advantages of minimum wage legislation. The majority of locals supported it, but some vacillated, dramatically shifting their stance toward wage legislation in the course of their activities.[31] The twists and turns in the positions taken by waitresses in California clearly reveal how economic concerns undergirded waitress union policy.

After initially opposing the concept, California waitresses came to favor minimum wage laws by the 1920s. When the San Francisco Labor Council voted against the minimum wage in 1913, the loudest opposition came from delegates representing women workers: garment workers, waitresses, and laundry workers. San Francisco waitresses did not dispute the arguments of minimum wage proponents that the health of working women and their competency as future mothers would be enhanced; they simply found the protection of their own trade union organization more compelling. Joining in the general negative consensus of male unionists from AFL president Samuel Gompers to local AFL officials, they argued that "any minimum established by law would certainly be lower than that established by the unions, thus tending to undermine the union scales." Such legislation, they reasoned, "would prove a detriment to the only practical method of improving the conditions of the working women,


namely organization." Significantly, waitresses also feared that a minimum wage for women would mean female job loss because women "are fitted to perform, without previous experience and study, but very few avocations" and must rely on situations where "job training is provided, but little in the way of cash compensation."[32]

Ignoring the objections raised by both unions and employers, the California public voted in favor of the legislation in a 1913 referendum election, and soon thereafter organized labor began vying with employers over the control of the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC)—the five-person board given jurisdiction over maximum hours, minimum wages, and working conditions. Waitresses' Local 48 joined with the San Francisco Labor Council, Millinery Workers, Laundry Workers, Bakery Workers, League of Women Voters, and the YWCA to form the Committee for Enforcement of the Minimum Wage. Much to their surprise, they found they could obtain acceptable standards and that the commission was committed to aggressive enforcement of those standards. They also discovered that state regulation of minimum standards neither inhibited organizing sentiments nor depressed union wage scales. In fact, after the IWC passed its first wage order governing hotel and restaurant employees in 1919, organized labor negotiated one of its better contracts. The first IWC minimum, set higher than the current union wage scale, could be used effectively as a public indictment of the low wage rates in the service trades.[33]

Union support of protective legislation enhanced labor's appeal among its own members as well as among the unorganized. Because wage-and-hour orders were less frequently violated by union employers, that fact became one more argument in favor of organizing. In houses that employed members of the Waitresses' Union the law was never violated, Bee Tumber, a prominent Southern California waitress officer, pointed out in 1924. "The girls receive their wages in real money instead of 'charge offs' for meals [and] laundry." They have "good food served them," and above all it is "possible to have improper conditions remedied by the representative of the union." Organized workers received the protection of the collective bargaining agreement and the advantage of an outside organization that would ensure legislative standards were met.[34]

Although the majority of California organized labor continued to oppose the minimum wage, by the mid-1920s the waitress organizations broke publicly with their brother unionists. When the state supreme court heard arguments concerning the constitutionality of the legislation, Waitresses' Local 639 in Los Angeles, along with other female wage-earner organizations, filed briefs in support of the law. Waitresses had seen how


government regulation could work for them, not against them. They moved from being leading opponents of government interference with wages to being staunch defenders.[35] In short, rather than relying on abstract principles in forming their positions, waitresses stayed close to the lessons taught by experience.

Before the 1930s, then, waitress unionists made limited but significant breakthroughs in both the collective bargaining and legislative arenas. Relying primarily on their own tenacity, ingenuity, and organizational strength, their accomplishments were piecemeal in scope and were often lost in bitter strikes or hostile court decisions. But unlike women in many other trades, waitresses established permanent institutions dedicated to the uplift of their craft. After 1930, assisted by a radically different social climate and a labor movement aggressively extending its organizational sway, waitresses finally wrested a decent standard of living from their employers and extended those standards to large numbers of female service workers.

Described in 1930 as little more than "an association of coffin societies," the labor movement confounded critics by its unprecedented expansion over the next two decades, adding fifteen million members by the early 1950s.[36] Culinary workers were not immune to the union fever: HERE nearly doubled its membership in 1933, the first heady year of New Deal legislation favoring unionization. Membership spurted ahead during the sit-downs of 1936 and 1937, and again during the war years. By the end of the decade HERE membership topped four hundred thousand, with a quarter of all hotel and restaurant workers organized.

As the International union matured into a substantial power within the hotel and restaurant industry, its membership became increasingly female. The percentage of women within the union doubled after 1930, climbing to 45 percent by 1950. Waitress locals aggressively reached out to unorganized waitresses in hotels, cafeterias, drugstores, and department stores; many waiters' locals opened their doors to female servers for the first time; and the new industrial hotel locals swept in large numbers of waitresses, chambermaids, female cashiers, checkers, and kitchen workers. By the late 1940s, more than two hundred thousand female culinary workers were organized, with close to a quarter of these within separate waitress organizations.[37]

The upsurge of unionism among waitresses undoubtedly was linked to larger societal forces that affected all workers: the more favorable public policy toward labor, the breakthroughs in organizing tactics and strategy on the part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the enhanced bargaining leverage of workers during World War II. But this


general picture cannot fully explain the growth of waitress unionism. After all, other groups of women workers, notably from the clerical and retail sector, failed in bringing permanent, widespread unionization to their industry.

The recovery of organized strength among culinary workers occurred first among male workers, primarily bartenders, and waiters. The repeal of Prohibition in December 1933 boosted male membership as restaurants added the serving of hard liquor and as soda fountains, creameries, and lunch stands metamorphosed into taverns and cocktail lounges. Catering Industry Employee , HERE's national journal, proudly announced that union house and bar cards "swing in perfect rhythm with the ceiling revolving fans of local beer gardens. Banned during prohibition days because their presence would uncover the close links between speakeasies and the Bartenders' Union, the displays . . . now hold prominent places."[38]

HERE organizing campaigns also benefited from the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. Like the mining and garment unions, HERE sought to influence New Deal legislation and exploit the situation for organizing purposes. In the case of the restaurant code, HERE lobbied National Recovery Administration (NRA) chief Hugh Johnson, threatened a strike if the codes were not revised upward, and testified at hearing after hearing along with the Amalgamated Food Workers (AFW), the Food Workers Industrial Union (FWIU), the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), and the Women's Bureau.[39]

The NRA codes sparked organization in the culinary industry because they raised hopes of improved wages and working conditions, yet failed miserably in delivering on these promises. The problem was twofold: the codes themselves, largely determined by employers, were substandard; and employers violated even these barest of employee protections because the government gave little evidence of either having the will or the ability to uphold code standards. According to San Francisco waiter official Hugo Ernst, if employers in that city adopted the governmental standards, working conditions would be "as bad as those thirty years ago."[40]

The Fruits of Solidarity

In San Francisco, waitresses enjoyed not only a long tradition of separate-sex organizing among workers and city residents, but also a solid union consciousness that resurfaced with a vengeance in the 1930s.[41] Waitresses' Local 48 organized first in restaurants patronized by union clientele, spread its drives to restaurants outside working-class neighborhoods, swept up cafeteria, drugstore, and tea-room waitresses, and then embraced


waitresses employed in the large downtown hotels and department stores. By 1941, waitresses in San Francisco had achieved almost complete organization of their trade, and Local 48 became the largest waitress local in the country. Their success resulted from a combination of factors: an exceptionally powerful local labor movement; sympathetic, fair-minded male co-workers within the Local Joint Executive Board (LJEB); and the existence of a waitress organization committed first and foremost to organizing and representing female servers.

In the early 1930s, Local 48 confronted unrelenting employer pressure for wage reductions and lowered standards. Delighted by the meager standards set by the NRA codes, restaurateurs replaced their union house cards with the Blue Eagle insignia (indicating compliance with government recommendations), lowered wages, and reverted to the fifty-four-hour week.[42]

In response, Local 48 informed the owners that the five-day, forty-hour week was the union standard, and, in conjunction with the other culinary crafts, they picketed some 284 restaurants in 1933 alone. They sidestepped restrictive local picketing ordinances by "selling" labor newspapers in front of targeted eating establishments during peak business hours. The attorney for one distraught employer complained to the judge that "the women walked back and forth in front of the plaintiff's restaurant, and prominently displayed newspapers bearing the headline in large black letters 'Organized Labor' and 'Labor Clarion,' and each of said women called out repeatedly in a loud, shrill, penetrating voice, at the rate of 30 to 40 times a minute, 'organized labor' 'organized labor.'"[43]

Culinary workers also resisted wage cuts in the hotels. After two years of reductions totaling 20 percent, the cooks struck the leading hotels in April 1934. The San Francisco LJEB considered calling a general strike of all culinary workers in San Francisco, but Edward Flore, assisted by federal mediators, convinced employers to submit the cooks' dispute to an arbitration board.[44]

Less than two months after the first discussion of an industrywide strike, culinary union members voted 1,991 to 52 to join the emerging citywide shutdown on behalf of striking maritime workers. Outraged over the death of two workers—one of whom was a cook and member of Local 44—during a bloody clash between police and picketers who had gathered in support of striking longshoremen, the San Francisco labor movement brought business to a standstill for three days. In the end, they secured collective bargaining in the maritime industry. The solidarity and militancy displayed by the culinary locals was typical. The International union wired sanction for an industrywide sympathy strike, and culinary crews


walked out 100 percent at midnight on Sunday, July 15. The few nonunion houses that dared open the following Monday morning closed their doors after "a little persuasion." Only two restaurants on Third Street where strikers ate—operated by people "apparently very close to the labor movement"—were in operation.[45]

Relying on the labor unity that prevailed among San Francisco unions in the aftermath of the 1934 General Strike, the waitresses' local doubled its membership over the next four years. They received general assistance from the Teamsters, the needle-trades workers pressured the kosher bars into compliance, and the printers, streetcarmen, longshoremen, and maritime trades organized the restaurants and bars adjacent to their work sites. Culinary spokespeople acknowledged their dependence: "There is a much better spirit of cooperation than formerly and the Culinary Workers have profited from it. We are indebted to the Maritime Unions and . . . in fact all the unions pull with us whenever we go to them with our troubles, thus our brothers did not give their lives for nothing."[46]

During the heady days of 1936 and 1937, organizing reached a fever pitch stimulated by the successful sit-down strikes in auto and other industries and the Supreme Court's favorable ruling on the constitutionality of the Wagner Act. San Francisco waitresses moved from their base in small independent restaurants to tackle campaigns in drugstore and 5 and 10 cent store lunch counters; in cafeterias and self-service chains; and in department store restaurants and the dining rooms of the major San Francisco hotels. The most significant breakthrough came as a result of the San Francisco hotel strike of 1937. The strike, which brought union recognition and a written contract covering workers in fifty-five hotels, inaugurated a new chapter in culinary unionism in San Francisco. With the backing of the San Francisco Labor Council (SFLC) and the promise from such pivotal unions as the butchers, bakers, teamsters, musicians, and stationary engineers not to cross the lines, three thousand hotel employees, one-third of whom were women, walked out on May 1, shutting down fifteen San Francisco hotels simultaneously.[47]

From the outset, the strikers were exceptionally well organized. "The union moved with military precision," wrote the federal mediator, "set up their strike headquarters [and] organized their picket squads, each squad consisting of one representative of each of the unions involved." As workers came off the job, they were handed printed cards bearing strike and picket instructions. Picket duty lasted for four continuous hours; failure to picket meant loss of one's job once the strike was settled. Margaret Werth, the waitress business agent assigned to the hotels, organized militant


waitress picket lines and achieved notable results with her waitress parade and beauty contest. After eighty-nine days of effective mass picketing that closed off the hotels to food delivery and arriving guests, a back-to-work settlement was signed involving fifty-five San Francisco hotels. The unions gained wage increases of 20 percent for most employees, equal pay for waiters and waitresses, preferential hiring with maintenance of membership, the eight-hour day, and union work rules for all crafts. For a generation of food service workers, the curtain rang down on the open-shop era with resounding finality.[48]

After this victory, the union soon reached a separate four-year agreement with the majority of small hotels in the city. Next they secured recognition from the Owl Drug Company chain, operating eleven stores in San Francisco with culinary departments; the major resident clubs of San Francisco; the Clinton's Cafeteria chain; and, after fourteen years on the union's unfair list, the Foster System, which consisted of thirty-two luncheon restaurants. "Please rush fifty house cards," Hugo Ernst, president of the San Francisco LJEB, wrote the International in 1937. "All Foster new houses will open up with a display of the house cards and other places too . . . demand the cards."[49]

The unionization of San Francisco's large downtown department stores also meant new members for Local 48. In October 1934, the LJEB moved into action against the Woolworth and Kress's 5 and 10 cent stores, placing them on the "We Don't Patronize" list, picketing, and distributing thousands of handbills house-to-house in working-class districts "to acquaint workers with the slave conditions that prevail." The Retail Clerk officials warned the LJEB that "it costs too much money to organize these national chains" and that they "would not consider wasting money on them," but the culinary workers continued picketing.[50]

Victory came in the spring of 1937 when Woolworth and twenty-five other department and specialty stores signed on with the newly chartered Department Store Employees, Local 1100, Retail Clerks International Union, AFL.[51] Initially, the retail local represented the food service workers in the stores as well as the sales employees because Ernst, supporting an industrial approach to organizing, had waived jurisdiction over the lunchroom employees. In 1940, however, Local 48 successfully demanded that the food service workers in department stores be part of their union.[52]

The infant department store and hotel unions faced major trials in their first few years such as the department store strike of 1938 and the hotel strike of 1941, but unionization had come to stay. Every eating establishment of any consequence had a union agreement. The Retail Creamery


Association, composed of fifty ice cream and fountain stores, signed on with the waitresses in 1940, granting a wage scale and working conditions on a par with the waiters. A year later, the union negotiated an agreement with the Tea Room Guild (some twenty employers), winning the closed shop, a forty-hour, five-day week, vacations with pay, and employer responsibility for providing and laundering uniforms.[53] By 1941, culinary union membership in San Francisco approached eighteen thousand. A majority of the hotels and motels were operating as union houses, and 95 percent of the estimated 2,500 restaurants in San Francisco were organized.[54]

Tactics: Reason, Humor, and Muscle

The organizing and bargaining tactics employed by San Francisco culinary unionists from the late 1930s to the 1950s represent the apogee of union power and creativity. With the majority of the industry union, many shop owners now voluntarily recognized the union. In 1941 alone, seventy-three restaurant owners sent the LJEB requests for union cards. Evidently, many employers judged the house or bar card announcing their union status essential to a steady flow of customers in union-conscious San Francisco. To promote patronage in unionized eateries, the culinary unions fined members for eating in nonunion restaurants and bought "a steady ad in the [San Francisco] Chronicle advertising the various union labels." They also appointed a committee specifically to devise "ways and means to advertise our Union House Card."[55]

In some cases, unionization appealed to employers who desired stability in an industry characterized by extreme open entry and a high rate of business failures. Citywide equalization of wage rates protected establishments from cut-throat competitors and chain restaurants that could slash wages and prices in one location until the independent competition capitulated. Employers recognized this function of culinary unionism and on more than one occasion approached the LJEB with names of nonunion houses that should be organized. "We, the undersigned, respectfully request your assistance" began one employer plea to the LJEB. "Attempts have been made to get [unfair] places to join us . . . these attempts have failed completely. We understand that union houses are protected against cut-throats and we wonder why we have been neglected."

Culinary unionists also realized that thorough organization was necessary to protect the competitive position of union houses. In the union campaign to organize tea rooms, for example, all but a few had signed up by the summer of 1939. The union pursued those recalcitrants, insisting


they were "unfair competition for the others." Reasoning along similar lines, the LJEB refused to issue house cards to employee-owned, cooperative enterprises although they met wage scales and working conditions. Their lower prices, the LJEB pointed out, were "a menace" to the union restaurants of the city. From 1937 through the 1950s, when organization among San Francisco restaurants remained close to 100 percent, many employers willingly complied with this system of union-sponsored industry stabilization and cooperation.[56]

Employers who failed to recognize the good business sense of unionization were asked to justify their refusal before the united board of culinary crafts. If this interrogation proved fruitless, the employer was reprimanded to a higher body: the executive council of the SFLC or a conference of retail and service unions including the Bakery Drivers, Milk Wagon Drivers, Bakers, and other involved parties. When these oral persuasions went unheeded, the restaurant faced increasing pressure through the council's "We Don't Patronize" list. Few employers could withstand the business losses of withdrawn union patronage when approximately one-fifth of San Francisco's entire population belonged to a labor organization. The Duchess Sandwich Company, for instance, explained that they refused to "force unionism" on their employees and declined to recognize the culinary workers. After less than a month on the council's unfair list, the co-owners of the company wrote that "we have given further consideration to your request that we take the initiative in bringing our employees into the Culinary Workers Organization. . . . We will be glad . . . to work out ways of bringing our plant into complete union membership . . . [and] to get away from the penalties which have piled up on us as a result of your putting us on the unfair list."[57]

When necessary, culinary unionists turned to picketing, creative harassment of shop owners and their clientele, and innovative strike tactics. Traditional strikes, whether by skilled or semiskilled culinary workers, rarely had much impact on businesses that could use family members or find at least one or two temporary replacements. In response, locals often picketed without pulling the crew inside. In these cases, picketing could be successful even if the potential union members working inside were indifferent or hostile to unionism. If picketing persuaded customers to bypass the struck restaurant or halted delivery of supplies, the employer usually relented. With the unity prevailing among San Francisco labor following the 1934 General Strike, culinary unionists experienced few problems stopping deliveries. Influencing customers was a far more difficult proposition.


Mass picketing intimidated prospective customers, but even in the heyday of union rank-and-file activism the LJEB had trouble generating large groups of pickets for so many scattered, isolated locations.[58] To supplement and reinforce weak picket lines, the San Francisco culinary unions devised masterful public relations techniques. The 1941 department and variety store pickets, for instance, attended the Stanford-UCLA football game and passed out "score cards" asking the captive public to help them "hold that line." Using the extended metaphor of football, the leaflets explained that "when Hi prices and Hi taxes throw their full power against left tackle—that's where the pocketbook is kept—only higher wages can plug the hole, and stop the play."[59]

Other attention-grabbing devices used by the same strikers in 1938 and again in 1941 included "Don't-Gum-up-the-Works gum" given out up and down Market Street, boats cruising the Bay during the Columbus Day celebration to advise "Do Not Patronize," and costumed picket lines. The costume variations were endless: Halloween pickets, women on skates, and even Kiddie Day picket lines. One picketer engaged a horse and buggy and trotted around San Francisco carrying a large placard that read "this vehicle is from the same era as the Emporium's labor policy." During the 1941 department store strike when a prize was offered for the picketer with the best costume, a young lunch counter striker won with a dress covered entirely with spoons; on her back she carried a sign reading "Local 1100 can dish it out but can the Emporium take it?" The 1938 dimestore strikers called themselves "the million dollar babies from the 5 & 10 cent stores." Carmen Lucia, an organizer for the Capmakers International Union who assisted the strikes, recalled, "I had them dressed up in white bathing suits, beautiful, with red ribbons around them, and [they'd] bring their babies on their shoulders." Strikers' children handed out leaflets reading "Take our mothers off the streets. Little Children Like to Eat."[60]

A community contingent reinforced the continuous flow of propaganda from the strikers. One group, developed out of the 1938 strike, called itself the Women's Trade Union Committee. Open to union women and wives of union men, the committee, chaired by waitress Frances Stafford, devoted itself to "educating women who have union-earned dollars to spend, as to where and how to spend them." During strikes, the committees escalated their "educational tactics." One devised a tactic called the "button game": shoppers were to go to stores in the busy hours, fill their carts with merchandise, and then demand a clerk wearing the union button. In eating places, supporters relied on somewhat different tactics. Helen Jaye, a San Francisco waitress in the 1930s, recalled one approach: "The people who


came into the cafeteria . . . were members of the ILGWU and they . . . gave him [the owner] the very dickens. I remember a couple of men [took] their trays up to the cash register and just dumped them on the floor."[61]

The Compromise of Collective Bargaining

Faced by this intimidating array of union tactics and the more favorable legal and political climate for labor, employers revised their approach to unions in the 1930s and in the process profoundly reshaped labor relation practices in the hotel and restaurant industry. Small and large employers now formed employer associations whose primary goal was the establishment of formal industrywide collective bargaining. In addition to stabilizing the industry and reducing competition, they hoped to end once and for all the insidious union "whip-saw technique" whereby the union insisted on dealing with each employer separately, playing one against the other. They also sought an end to the system in which union workers unilaterally determined their wages and working conditions and then struck for employer compliance. In other words, rather than oppose unionization altogether, employers banded together to contain the power of unions through institutionalized collective bargaining.[62]

The union, on the other hand, desired the extension of its old system of unilaterally determined wage scales and enforcement of standards on a house-by-house basis. Before 1937, individual culinary locals met and voted on the conditions that would govern their craft. These wage scales and working rules were not discussed with the employer; they were arrived at by the mutual consent of the members of each separate local. The individual crafts then submitted their proposals to the LJEB for approval (if a LJEB existed). The board, on behalf of its member trades, presented the standards to individual employers. Employers agreeing to the union wage scales and working conditions earned the privilege of displaying a union house card. A single-page "Union Labor License Agreement," signed by both the union and the employer, bound the "union card employer" to hire only union "members in good standing dispatched from the office of each respective union" and to pay employees "not less than the rate of wages . . . adopted by the LJEB." It was "expressly understood" that the LJEB reserved "the right to alter or modify or change the said scales from time to time." Wages and conditions of employment, then, were determined by the union "on a unilateral non-bargaining basis" and could be changed overnight at the whim of the unions.[63]

In 1937, the employers banded together and began organizing to subvert the old system. At a mass meeting of the restaurateurs, called by


attorney David Rubenstein, they empowered the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) to act as their negotiating body. The majority of small luncheonettes and cafeterias formed a separate but similarly inclined organization, the Dairy Lunch and Cafeteria Owners Association (DLCOA). Rubenstein, chosen to head both organizations, needled apathetic owners still outside the associations by constant warnings of the dire consequences of inaction. "They are picking us off one by one," he railed. "If you fail to attend [association meetings] and are squeezed to the wall like a soft tomato, blame none but yourself."[64]

For three years, neither the GGRA nor the DLCOA made headway in moving the LJEB toward industrywide collective bargaining.[65] Desperate, the restaurant employers turned for assistance to Almon Roth, president of the San Francisco Employer's Council. The council had solidified its reputation during the 1938 department store strike, helping the employers win a single master agreement on an open-shop basis.[66] When the culinary unions issued their 1941 wage cards, directing significant wage increases for the first time since the 1920s, Roth responded, "the terms and conditions set forth in the cards which you have presented . . . are not satisfactory." Sixty-seven of the larger downtown restaurants instituted a 25 percent wage cut and reverted to the six-day week, eight-hour day.[67]

In the end, after a two-month lock-out in the summer of 1941, the employers gained their primary objective, a signed master agreement, but at the cost of acceding to union wage demands and a closed-shop clause. The LJEB compromised by signing one standard five-year contract covering the sixty-seven downtown restaurants, the tea rooms, dairy lunches, and cafeterias "with the right each year to re-open the contract and strike on wages but not on working conditions." The house card system continued, but the agreements signed by employers no longer required them to abide by wage scales determined solely by the LJEB. At the insistence of the employers, bilateral bargaining had come to San Francisco's restaurant industry.[68]

Association bargaining on a bilateral basis was more easily achieved in the hotel than in the restaurant industry. The few large hotel owners could coordinate and agree much more readily than could an unwieldy group of some hundred small restaurant entrepreneurs, some renowned for their flamboyance and boundless egos. Hotel employers also had no prior history of union-dominated unilateral bargaining to overcome. The hotel owners established industrywide association bargaining in their first encounter with the unions in 1937. In a second round of negotiations in 1941, the Hotel Employers Association and the union deadlocked over the union proposal for a closed shop and preferential hiring through the union


hiring hall. The ensuing hotel strike, called on August 30, 1941, convinced hotel employers that the open-shop era was an irretrievable heirloom of history. When back-to-work orders were finally issued by the National War Labor Board in April 1942, after eight grueling months, the union had proven itself a formidable opponent.[69]

Thus, by the early 1940s, an accord was achieved in the San Francisco hotel and restaurant industry that opened a new era of surprising stability and cooperation.[70] Union power had been extended over a wider terrain, yet at the same time employers had modified and diluted that power by forging a new bilateral bargaining system. The next major strike was not to occur until the 1980s, when the carefully crafted system of the 1930s began unraveling.

Further Reading

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century . 1991.

———. "'Drawing the Line': The Construction of a Gendered Work Force in the Food Service Industry." In Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor , edited by Ava Baron, pp. 216-242. 1991.

———. "'Practical Women': Waitress Unionists and the Controversies over Gender Roles in the Food Service Industry." Labor History 29 (Winter 1988): 5-31.

Deverell, William, and Tom Sitton, eds. California Progressivism Revisited . 1994.

Eaves, Lucile. A History of California Labor Legislation, with an Introductory Sketch of the San Francisco Labor Movement . 1910.

Englander, Susan. Class Coalition and Class Conflict in the California Woman Suffrage Movement , 1907-1912: The San Francisco Wage Earners' Suffrage League . 1992.

Healey, Dorothy, and Maurice Isserman. Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party . 1990.

Hunalley, Norris C. "Katherine Phillips Edson and the Fight for the California Minimum Wage, 1912-1923." Pacific Historical Review 29 (August 1960): 271-285.

Katz, Sherry J. "Dual Commitments: Feminism, Socialism, and Women's Political Activism in California, 1890-1920." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles, 1991.

———. "Frances Nacke Noel and 'Sister Movements': Socialism, Feminism, and Trade Unionism in Los Angeles, 1909-1916." California History 67 (September 1988): 180-189.

Kraft, lames E "The Fall of Job Harriman's Socialist Party: Violence, Gender, and Politics in Los Angeles, 1911." Southern California Quarterly 70 (Spring 1988): 43-68.

Laslett, John H. M., and Mary Tyler. The ILGWU in Los Angeles, 1907-1988 . 1989


Matthews, Lillian Ruth. Women in Trade Unions in San Francisco . 1930.

Nash, Gerald D. "The Influence of Labor on State Policy, 1860-1920: The Experience of California." California Historical Society Quarterly 42 (September 1963): 241-257.

Schaffer, Ronald. "The Problem of Consciousness in the Woman Suffrage Movement: A California Perspective." Pacific Historical Review 45 (November 1976): 469-493.


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