Wed. Jul 6th, 2022

If you want to understand money and power, work in a restaurant. Years ago, when I was still waiting tables, I accepted payment with a £ 50 note that could only have been a more obvious fake if the word “pounds” had been misspelled. I did so because, while I knew the note was fake, I also knew that the diner’s knuckle-duster was real. This taught me that while I valued the money my then-employer gave me, I valued the teeth our fraudulent guest had the capacity to deprive me of a lot more.

While you are unlikely to face this dilemma at the average branch of PizzaExpress, how the mid-market British chain redistributes tips among its workers is a handy demonstration of how power is shifting in the 21st century, and how people respond to threats to their position and status. (If not their teeth.)

Since the easing of coronavirus restrictions in the UK, many restaurants have redistributed tips from waiting staff, in order to make it easier to attract people to the skilled back-of-house kitchen roles that have become harder to fill. At PizzaExpress, this led to service charges being split 50/50 between those working on the floor and those toiling in the kitchen. Thanks to a campaign by waiting staff, backed by the trade union Unite, the chain has now reversed course: waiting staff will retain 70 per cent of service charges, with the kitchen team pocketing the remaining 30 per cent.

How you feel about the justice of that says a lot about where you come from: as a former waiter, one of my few unshakeable convictions is that when customers leave a tip, they are doing so not as a commentary on the quality of the meal but on the person who served them. When I waited tables, the vast majority of my tips came in cold, hard, undetectable cash. Although in theory they all went into a communal pot, the waiting staff had quietly agreed that we would carefully restrict what and how much we added to the shared pile. Everyone had a different approach to this, as well as varying degrees of honesty in how we declared our tips to the taxman. What separated us from today’s waiters is that we were in the driving seat.

The drastic decline in cash payments means that the modern waiter starts at a disadvantage: they can not hide how much they are pulling in service charges from either their colleagues or the state. I’m not saying that serving staff should be at the front of the queue as far as the losers from the end of cash are concerned: political dissidents, people without bank accounts, or anyone with complex care needs, often suffer a bigger cost from the end of paper money. But they share a common problem, and it is therefore worth asking: how might other losers from these social and economic changes react? This is important because it’s not just in footing the bill for cashless societies that the changing dynamic between the waiting and kitchen staff is a microcosm of wider pressures.

Most roles in a kitchen are “skilled” roles – or, more accurately, “credentialed” roles. As someone who used to be a very bad waiter, let me tell you being a good one requires a great deal of skill. But they are not, for the most part, skills that are easily expressed through paper qualifications. Whether you work in a care home, a call center or wait tables, the uncredentialed worker is increasingly poorly treated and poorly remunerated. Their pay has stagnated and so has their prestige.

What does this say about the rest of society? It’s instructive, I think, that what helped get PizzaExpress waiters some of their money back was the support of a trade union. That campaign was able to persuade not only management to tip the balance back in waiters’ favor on tips, but equally importantly, kitchen staff voluntarily to relinquish their 50/50 share. It’s a common anti-union argument that they cause inflation. One reading of the PizzaExpress affair would absolutely support that: after all, when the dust settles, the chain will still be struggling to recruit qualified staff to back-of-house roles, and will still need to raise pay and thus prices to do so . While it’s true to say that “unskilled” workers have had a difficult time, skilled workers have not had a particularly good one either.

But it may be more accurate to see trade union membership as a thermostatic reaction for most people: a response to inflation and increased cost-of-living pressure, and, in this case, a way to reach internal agreement without acrimony.

That PizzaExpress workers reacted to the era of cashless payments and real-terms pay cuts by joining forces with a trade union may well be a pretty good indicator of how workers more generally respond to the new strains on their incomes and livelihoods in the months ahead. The age of inflation could yet prove to be the age of trade union.

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