Ethical choices around other peoples’ labor are forced upon us every day, even before the coronavirus upended all of our lives. Our humblest gestures carry weighty meaning: Do we tip the guy at the takeout counter? Do we give the babysitter her day off paid or unpaid? How to handle the person at the restaurant that screwed up our order? The gig economy means that we find ourselves often hiring one-time services, and unionization drives are spreading to new industries. So in early January, Lilith posed questions to labor journalist Sarah Jaffe, who tackles thorny issues in her forthcoming book Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Leaves Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone.
ARIELLE SILVER-WILLNER: First, what led you to write about labor?
SARAH JAFFE: I had a lot of shitty jobs. I worked in retail, restaurants, coffee shops—the underlying thing that all of those have in common is that the work sucks, you don’t have a lot of power and you have to be nice to both your boss and to customers. I worked in high school, I worked in college, I worked after college—it took me awhile to be able to make a living as a journalist. I was drawn to thinking about work, and that’s when I started to learn about labor unions. I didn’t see a lot of people writing about this stuff at the time. That continues to be an influence on the work I’m doing with this upcoming book about jobs we’re supposed to love.
There is a movement to end the tipped minimum wage—if you work in a job where you routinely get tips you can legally be paid much less than the minimum wage. Why are jobs that rely on tips so exploitative, and why should we care?
Tipping in the U.S. is built into labor law. You can pay your workers less if they get tipped. I believe it’s still $2.70-something an hour, which is the same as it was the last time I had a waitressing job, which was 2004. I got paychecks that weren’t paychecks, because everything that my boss was required to pay me went to taxes, and basically the only money I got was in tips.
So you never know how much you’re going to make on a given day. Also, customers can be atrocious to you and you have to deal with it. You look at every table, when you’re waiting tables and go, “This person can decide whether I pay my bills or not.” That was also true to a degree when I was working in retail.
Workers organize around tipping because on some level we all know that your boss should pay you for the work that you do and it shouldn’t be on the customers to do that. The fight for raising the minimum wage for tipped workers is important. A., because it is driven by workers, and B., because it actually raises the floor for everyone, as opposed to these restaurants that you hear about that are voluntarily getting rid of tips, or taking all the tips and making everybody split their tips between the kitchen and the front-of- the-house staff. I tell people, “Don’t trust bosses bearing gifts.”
Right now I’m in England and I notice that I always enjoy surly waitstaff here (not that all the waitstaff in England are surly)—they don’t have to suck up.
There’s also nail salons, cab drivers, hairdressers, massage therapists, jobs where they are probably making a halfway decent wage, but tipping is needed. Tip your tattoo artist! There are so many [transactions] where it is built into the expected rate. People complain about having to do this and I get it, but trust me it wasn’t fun living on tips either.
What is your rule of thumb in terms of how much/whether to tip in our daily encounters?
Always tip. The least you can do as a consumer who is a decent human being is realize that your waitress is subsidizing the price of your meal by not getting paid by her boss, and you leave at least a 20 percent tip. In terms of other tipped industries that are not subject to the tipped minimum wage, you still should tip. These are people who are not making a lot of money and also working in crappy conditions.
But the real situation is that we’re not going to solve these problems by everyone being nicer to the waitstaff (although you should always be nicer to the waitstaff—they control your food). We have to solve a problem of inequality and lack of power. So support the organizations by which these workers are making their own voices heard, telling us exactly what they need.
You mention in your previous writing that women tend to work more of the jobs that require them to “put on a happy face.”
When you are expected to perform a certain type of “liking your job” to make sure that you get your tip and you get paid, you have to paste a smile on your face. Arlie Hochschild famously called this “emotional labor”—the labor of performing a certain emotion in order to evoke a certain emotion in somebody else. So, when you’re waiting tables, you have to perform that you’re really excited to tell people about this wine, or this dessert special, because you want them to be happy and have a good time and then give you a 20, 25 percent tip at the end. All of that is designed to make somebody else happy—your customer and your boss. It is not about whether you genuinely like your job. Most people who wait tables probably have some nights where their job is fun, and other nights where their job is absolute torture. I certainly did.
We see more women in these workforces for several reasons—the expectations that we’ve long had that women are the ones who stay at home, raise the kids, do the housework, and do all of that without getting paid for it, because they love it. Because they love their family and because they love the work itself.
Selma James, Sylvia Federici, the Wages for Housework movement—many thinkers have noted that this notion has shaped capitalism itself.
In my book I’m writing about service work, retail work, women’s unpaid work in the home and then paid domestic work, teaching. I did not, but could have included: nursing, home care, food service, and nonprofit work, which also has its roots in women’s unpaid labor. We have watched these ideas creep into the rest of the workforce, and when they do, they come along with low wages and the idea that you’re going to do the work anyway because you like it.
You talk a bit about how tipping is a gendered issue. How can we expand this to think of tipping as a racialized issue as well?
When talking about service work in the U.S. you have to understand the history of slavery. Paid domestic work has always been associated with slavery because [slave-owners] would get women [slaves] to do the laundry, the housework. After slavery, racist white people didn’t want to pay their former slaves a living wage. For service work that doesn’t have this association with servitude, there’s still a tension there. When people talk about fast food workers, a lot of the things they’ll say is that those jobs are for teenagers, but also there’s the implication that those jobs are for people who can’t do any better, and we know what that means in the U.S., where you see people of color concentrated in lower-paying parts of the service economy.
You’ve reported a lot on fast food workers organizing for better conditions.
The Fight for 15 [that is, for a $15 minimum wage] coming out of fast food is a racial justice movement. Rasheen Aldridge, now a state legislator in Missouri: “I’ve learned these organizing skills working on the Fight for 15 but also, this is all connected; the fact that young people in Ferguson have the choice of a handful of crappy jobs, while the cops are collecting fines off of us and they shoot us if we don’t behave.” These are all interconnected forms of oppression.
How do we overcome the reliance on tipped wages?
Overthrow the capitalist class? I mean, you build momentum through organizing. Show up when there’s a picket line, Show up when there’s a hearing at City Hall.
Washington D.C. had this whole situation where voters passed a ballot initiative that would have required tipped workers be paid an actual minimum wage, and the city council then reversed it because bosses were mad about it. There have been places where the tipped minimum wage has already been raised. Even raising the regular minimum wage, which is still nationally $7.25 an hour, would be helpful.
There are organizations like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice that have done a lot of work organizing people around things like the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, saying that as Jewish people we should be not only good employers. But we should actually be involved in the struggle for people to have rights written into the law that are enforceable. That means it’s not just built on being nicer to the waitress or the person who cleans your house, or the person who looks after your kid, it means that everybody else has to provide a decent living to the person who takes care of their kid, cleans their house, serves them food.
Don’t leave that up to individual people deciding to be nice, but make sure that there are consequences for people treating their workers badly.
But I think the most important thing is workers organizing for themselves, taking power on the shop floor, as well as in law. After all, we have laws on sexual harassment and they certainly haven’t stopped anybody from doing it. So you have to be powerful enough to fight back.
The Hotel Workers Unions, for instance, have done work getting panic buttons for hotel housekeepers, because they’re alone in rooms with men, sometimes, who turn up and think that the housekeeper is an easy target—she might be an immigrant, she’s cleaning your room, she’s already in a subservient position. Men, like the former head of the World Bank, take advantage.
My new book is about the way the changing economy increasingly relies on people’s supposed love for the job itself. In post-industrial countries, where manufacturing work is fading away, outsourced to poorer countries or to machines, what is it that motivates us to keep working? Why do we expect to find fulfillment on the job, and what happens when we don’t?
In what ways can we think about these labor issues more broadly, in relation to Jewish values?
What I think of as Jewish values seem to me to be more important now than ever. We are a people that have been oppressed for who we are, what we look like, how we pray. We should understand that our struggles and our suffering are connected to other people who are oppressed because of how they look, how they pray, what they eat, where they live. And that can sound arcane—“Does being a Jew mean that you should tip well?” But, yes. Not because there’s a stereotype that we’re cheap, but because being Jewish means we should be in solidarity with people struggling for their own right to exist and be free, which means being economically stable enough to actually make the choices that a free person can make.
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt and the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back.