Restaurant Workers' Community Foundation


On the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, 11 Movement-Building Lessons for Restaurant Workers

By Michael Hamill Remaley, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, Board Treasurer

Restaurant workers are coming to recognize that they are a distinct community with a specific set of challenges. There are a growing number of nonprofit organizations focusing on their needs, organizing workers and advocating on their behalf. We are at the beginning of what is likely to be a long arc of change for our community, and that’s why this is the perfect time to learn lessons from other successful movement-building efforts. 

I have learned a great deal from my experience serving on the board of directors of Stonewall Community Foundation, which I apply to my board service for RWCF. We have so much to learn from other labor movements, civil rights organizers, and the women’s rights movement, but on this celebratory month – the 50thAnniversary of the Stonewall Uprising – let’s honor and learn from the great successes – and early mistakes – of the LGBTQIA movement. I am not a movement historian, by any means, so this is more of a jumping off point for further discussion than a definitive list. 

Here are some of things I think the Queer movement has done particularly well and that the movement for restaurant workers should emulate:

1.     Reframe to Pride and Community

Before leaders of the “Gay Rights Movement” stood up and began to assert our basic human dignity, the vast majority of Americans viewed LGBTQIA people as mentally damaged or morally deviant, with no claim to positive value or legitimate culture. One major success of the Queer movement has been to simply reframe the thinking of both the general public and the demographic group itself to conceive of ourselves as a specific community that has always been a part of American culture, one we should all be proud of. Like the Queer community, restaurant workers are extraordinarily diverse, some more successful and prosperous within existing industry cultural norms and laws than the vast majority of others. America’s 14 million restaurant workers have a lot of organizing and communications to do to begin a similar change in public thinking. 

2.     Work Long-Term

The struggle for Queer liberation didn’t begin with the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 and it didn’t end with our victory on national marriage equality. It seems like the current development of the movement for restaurant worker rights is at a nascent stage analogous to the pre-Stonewall era when groups like the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society were speaking out and testing messages about justice, rights and fairness. The Stonewall Uprising in 1969 now seems like a major event, but it was just one moment in a long struggle to organize and develop a nationwide network of nonprofits and community leaders who could speak out on behalf of those who didn’t have the power or access to the microphone that those early leaders seized. Countless leaders and organizations in the Queer movement have contributed over the past 50 years to the protests, lawsuits, campaigns, lobbying, and cross-movement relationship-building that has made huge progress for LGBTQIA people. The one thing people knew in the early days of the movement was that progress would not come quickly, and the one thing we know today is that the struggle is not over. For restaurant workers, our challenges are to begin seeing ourselves as a community, organize and come together to demand the changes we seek, and lift up leaders who can speak out for those most vulnerable in our community. Important change-makers in the restaurant industry like Ashtin BerrySaru JayaraminJennifer Hidinger-Kendrick, Danny Meyer and countless others have been speaking out and working hard to improve life in restaurants, and we’re just at the beginning.    

3.     Make the Most of a Crisis  

The Stonewall Uprising was visceral reaction to oppression that Queer people seized upon to make a case against the oppression the community faced in every state of the nation. A dozen years later, as the AIDS/HIV crisis began to explode, the community was confronted with the devastating loss of people and demonizing by the far Right, who blamed the community’s very existence for the ravages of the disease instead of treating it as a public health challenge. Amidst the loss of countless leaders in the Queer community, recognizing the life-or-death urgency of the cause, LGBTQIA people all across the nation protested and founded new organizations to serve our community.  While funding was slow to trickle in, institutional philanthropy began in the 1980s and 1990s to support organizations that were providing both direct services and advocacy around AIDS/HIV and Queer rights.  Even though the period before the development of effective HIV medications was devastating and we lost a mind-numbing number of people, it was nonetheless a period of an extraordinary burgeoning of new Queer-led organizations and a national network that worked on many fronts to demand fair treatment. There is a crisis in the restaurant world: It is a crisis of widespread low-wages, high rates of mental illness and substance abuse, sexual violence, racial discrimination and more. While that crisis is very different from a worldwide pandemic, we should nonetheless take the lesson that every injustice to members of our community presents an opportunity to tell the story of the people affected it, to lift up the lives of people who struggle and to amplify our community’s voices. 

4.     Craft Messages that Resonate with Many Americans

The Queer movement has never had uniform agreement on issue priorities, but when states began to actively legislate against the possibility of marriage equality in the form of legislation limiting marriage to “one man and one woman,” the marriage equality push began to become a top priority. Leaders in the movement realized early on that simply demanding equality, rights and fair treatment didn’t actually engender mass support among most Americans. Marriage equality advocates invested a lot of time and resources into researching and crafting messaging that would resonate with a larger swath of the public. The campaign that ultimately led to success in state after state, and then in the Supreme Court, centered on “Why Marriage Matters: Love, Commitment and Family.” The campaign focused on common values and how the law could better support family stability, deepen family ties, and help support people who want to make long-term commitments to one another. These are values that the far Right has long championed and appealed to many parents who now, after the movement’s many decades of encouraging people to “come out,” were much likelier to know and love someone who wanted to be in a committed relationship. For the restaurant community, we need to begin to tell our own stories in different ways.  We need to debunk the myth that restaurant workers are mostly young people on their way to creative careers just earning lucrative tips along the way. We need to talk more about restaurant work as a career that could be sustainable for families if only there were reliable pay, career ladders and better working conditions. The dignity of food service and “sharing the joy” of good food and health could also be central to effective messaging, but we need to find the time and resources to figure out what will resonate with more Americans. 

5.     “Come out” and Take on Systematic Erasure

Those who opposed Queer rights have always tried to depict us as a tiny bunch of degenerates – oddities with mental health issues. That’s why coming out to friends and family was so important, and ultimately, extremely effective.  When we stand up proudly and say who we are, acknowledge the challenges we face and demand the changes that could make our lives better, those who work against us have a much harder time portraying us to our families and our communities that we are the problem. For restaurant workers, the “coming out” that needs to happen might be to stand more proudly on behalf of the work that we do, to champion restaurant work as a legitimate long-term career and to speak out about the needs of this growing low-wage workforce.  If every person who works for tips and has to live with the vagaries of the sub-minimum wage talked with their families and friends about the ramifications; if they informed family and friends that the tips they give in a restaurant is actually subsidizing restaurant employers who don’t pay a living wage; if they talked more openly about the sexual harassment, immigrant poor treatment, racial discrimination and substance abuse and mental health disparities that are so common in the restaurant industry, we could vastly increase public understanding of some of the issues the restaurant community faces. Many Americans may assume that working in a restaurant is easy money and a fun time. We need to start talking about the reality of restaurant work to everyone we know. 

6.     Fuse Litigation with Communications Campaigns

After the marriage equality campaign succeeded, The Atlanticwrote a detailed account of how and why it was so effective. Atlantic writer Molly Ball noted – and many other observers have, too – “The campaign’s major innovation was fusing litigation with a political campaign, using lawsuits and state-level political victories to reinforce one another.” One major lesson for other movements is to use state and local politics to put points on the board, she said. This seems to be the strategy that Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is pursuing with its One Fair Wage state-based campaigns in more labor-friendly states. ROC United seems to be focused mostly on legislation to eliminate the tip credit, but in the process, they are also doing extraordinarily important work educating the public about the challenges that restaurant workers face.  

While the Queer movement is an excellent model for restaurant workers in many regards, its leaders also made some big mistakes along the way that we need to consider, discuss and learn from: 

7.     Center the Most Vulnerable 

While the Stonewall Uprising was largely the work of angry drag queens, people of color, bull dykes and others who had the hardest time hiding their queerness, the leadership of the Gay Rights Movement that grew up after it actively sidelined those very same people and put forward the most “respectable” and palatable (mostly privileged gay men) as spokespeople for an immensely diverse community.  This was both morally wrong and a serious tactical error. We are still dealing with the consequences of this marginalization and erasure of people of color and people who don’t fit neatly into traditional gender roles.  The movement for restaurant workers must start with a focus on those who experience the most challenges in our industry. We certainly should recognize the owners, managers and chefs who are generally doing quite well in the current culture of the business, but if we want the entire community to thrive, we need to give voice to those who are experiencing the hardships that the industry allows to continue.  Women, people of color, immigrants, queer people and people struggling with mental health and substance abuse, and those living on very low wages face huge amounts of discrimination, harassment and unfair treatment in our industry. We should center those people in the movement, work to involve them in setting the agenda and tell their stories to make the changes they seek.  

8.     Focus on Cross-Movement Building

In its early days, the Gay Rights Movement focused too much on its own demands and did not do enough to support and grow other movements with which we could have worked in common cause.  The women’s rights movement should have been a natural ally and every gay man should have been out on the front lines supporting our sisters advocating for equal pay, protesting gender discrimination and calling out misogyny in all its ugly manifestations. Anti-gay sentiments are, after all, rooted in misogyny and the institutionalization of patriarchal power. Instead, gay leaders largely focused on narrow gay rights issues and did not expend many resources supporting other movements like labor, racial equity, immigrant rights, that could have produced solid coalition partnerships. For restaurant workers, we see the obvious connections we need to make such as in the broader labor movement, movements for racial equity, gender equity and immigrant rights, but will we come out to support them consistently?  Will we see beyond those obvious connections and support movements for other vulnerable people in America, such as Muslims, non-binary and Transgender people, and people with disabilities?  

9.     Grow Communications Networks

We should honor the amazing work gay rights advocates did in the days before the internet when most of their organizing took the form of protests and mimeographed flyers, but we must also recognize that the movement was too slow to build organizations that had contact lists and an effective nationwide mobilization strategy. One of my favorite Queer organizers Urvashi Vaid noted in her widely discussed 2009 piece “Ten Lessons from LGBT Activism,” information is power. “People who are outside of the power structure or disempowered or marginalized in some way must organize first to build their own self-awareness and change the awareness of others,” she said the Queer movement demonstrates.Restaurant workers do not currently have unions or well-resourced national nonprofits that are signing up followers who will become part of the movement.  We cannot wait to do this. Growing organizations with large contact lists and social media following of people working in the restaurant industry and supporters of our cause must be among our highest priorities. 

10.  Be Ready with “What’s Next” After a Big Win

For the Queer movement, the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality was a huge win, but it hardly ended discrimination against Queer people. We have so much more to do, and we need to continuously defend the victories we fought so hard to achieve. Too many in the funding community and even many in Queer activist circles took a breather after the SCOTUS ruling and, as a movement, we weren’t prepared with a “what’s next agenda” that should have aggressively extended advocacy for gender-expression, protections for Queer kids in schools, national legislation on Anti-LGBTQ discrimination and a host of other priorities for the community.  For restaurant workers, many advocates are focused on the “One Fair Wage” campaign and eliminating the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers nationally. It is possible that, in the coming years, legislation on this issue might move through both houses of the U.S. Congress and be signed by a receptive President.  But the tip-credit issue can’t be the only issue our community focuses on, and if that victory does occur, we need to be ready with our “what’s next agenda” to improve career ladders, eliminate discrimination along gender, race and immigration status, and ensure that restaurant workers have access to quality substance abuse and mental health treatment. 

As I was creating this piece, I read quite a few think-pieces on lessons from the 50+ year history of the gay rights movement, and one that resonated with me in particular was this: 

11.  Honor those who came before you, trust those who are still to come

In a HuffPost article, Ashton Skinner, a self-described “Transgender organizer, social justice warrior and gender outlaw,” talked about lessons learned from the work of one long-term Queer movement leader, which should apply to us all trying to build movements. This leader, and all conscientious leaders, understood “the trajectory of our work, and value of investing in those who will come after you in order to make their path smoother. Your purpose positions you in a long line of people who have worked, are working, and will continue to work for your goals. Respect your place in line and amplify the voices of those ahead and behind you.”

For the restaurant worker movement, that means we should honor and learn from the countless labor organizers over the past century and a half, farm workers’ rights organizers, those who have been waging the “Fight for 15” campaign in recent years, women’s rights organizers, immigrant rights leaders, racial equity and civil rights advocates, mental health advocates, and many other movements that have successfully focused attention on their communities and advanced agendas that would advance social change.  On this 50thAnniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, we at Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation celebrate the Queer movement and thank everyone in the LGBTQIA community for providing so many shining examples of how to nurture a grass-roots movement, grow a sense of common purpose, and stand up for the dignity and worth of everyone in our community. 

John deBary