Tipped Wages and Supreme Court Cases: A Labor History of U.S. Bartenders

Frontier labor strike
The 1991-98 strike at Las Vegas' Frontier Hotel was the country's longest labor dispute./ Photo courtesy University of Nevada, Las Vegas

In recent weeks, bars and restaurants across the country have shut down or pivoted to takeout/delivery-only options in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. With these changes come income loss and uncertainty for the approximately 16.8 million people who make their living in the hospitality industry.

“What we’re seeing right now is how vulnerable we are in this country,” says Lauren Friel, owner of Rebel Rebel wine bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, about both owners and employees of bars and restaurants.

Industry members have responded in numerous ways. They’ve launched digital fundraisers for those suddenly out of work, created zero-interest loans for small business owners and petitioned for legislation aimed to create a more stable future for the industry.

These are the latest developments in a long fight for rights and protections of people who work in bars and restaurant. Here’s a look at pivotal moments in the history of food and beverage labor rights, and what they mean for workers now.

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1634: Samuel Cole opens the first licensed tavern in the country.

Also called “public houses” and “ordinaries,” taverns were hugely important in Colonial America. In addition to serving food and drinks, they acted as accommodations, post offices and gathering spaces for people of varying social and economic backgrounds. However, at this time, it was also still legal to ban or refuse service to Native Americans.

Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (Oxford University Press, 2011) says that drinking spaces may have to return to multifunctionality.

“We’re already seeing it, with distilleries and breweries making hand sanitizers,” she says. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, bars and breweries often served as community centers, hosting political fundraisers, Bible study groups, children’s birthday parties and other gatherings.

1850s & ’60s: Tips given to service workers becomes standard after the ratification of the 13th Amendment ended slavery in U.S.

The practice originated in Europe and had been adopted by Americans around the 1850s. Tipping diminished across the pond in the 1860s but continued Stateside where it was especially favored by employers who sought to avoid paying workers, particularly those newly liberated from slavery.

1891: Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union launches. It’s dedicated to bar and restaurant workers, and became UNITE HERE, after it merged with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees in 2004.

In 1901, the union worked with other local organizations in San Francisco to strike, demanding a six-day work week.

1898–1900: The “Colored Mixologists Club” in Washington, D.C. forms. It helped Black bar professionals develop their techniques and cocktail recipes.

Prohibition labor unions march
Labor union members march to protest Prohibition in Newark, 1931/Photo by Alamy

1920: The 18th Amendment, also known as Prohibition, goes into effect, banning the production, sale and distribution of alcohol.

While some alcohol-related businesses were able to pivot, about 250,000 people lost their jobs.

“Prohibition has come up a lot as the last big crisis [for the industry],” says Robin Nance, cofounder of America’s Table, an advocacy organization for hospitality workers. “You could certainly see bartenders protesting then.”

Prohibition endured for nearly 14 years and cost the country about $11 billion in tax revenue. It’s also estimated to have led to about 1,000 deaths per year from people who drank tainted liquor.

1933: America ratifies the 21st Amendment and repeals Prohibition. Economists hoped that introducing 500,000 alcohol-related jobs would aid the U.S. economy, then deep in the Great Depression.

Many hotels and restaurants across the country had been granted liquor licenses to serve beer up to 3.2% alcohol by volume (abv) earlier in the year, and were able to offer wine, spirits and cocktails right away. Still, in the first year of repeal, alcohol sales and related income contributed about 9% of federal tax revenue. The money later helped fund New Deal programs, including the Works Progress Administration employment initiative.

1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act dictates that tipped servers must at least earn federal minimum wage. If tips alone don’t equal that, employers must pay out the difference.

This Act also codified the 40-hour work week and the eight-hour workday. Anyone covered by the Act who worked longer hours would be entitled to overtime.

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1941: The U.S. enters World War II.

Women became bartenders in huge numbers, though many left these jobs after men returned from war. Sismondo says that while women may have owned and run taverns in Colonial times, their numbers were comparatively diminished leading up to the mid-20th century.

From 1946–48, after U.S. soldiers returned, women were pressured not to work in bars unless they owned them or were married to the owners, with one case, Goesaert v. Cleary, going all the way to the Supreme Court and upholding a lower court’s decision that women couldn’t be bartenders in Michigan. The ruling has since been reversed.

1948: The United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) forms. Like the “Colored Mixologist Clubs” of the past, its mission was to support education and training for career bartenders.

About two decades after its creation, USBG became the first national nonprofit devoted to bartenders, and in 2015, it launched a cash assistance program for those in need.

1966: An amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act says that employers must pay tipped workers a modified minimum wage, even if employees meet the standard federal minimum wage threshold through gratuity alone.

The issues this amendment raised endure. Today, the federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13 per hour, and has been since 1991. While many cities and states have implemented higher minimum pay, 19 states still adhere to that rate.

Frontier Labor Strike, 1991
The Las Vegas branch of the NAACP joined the line at the 1991 Frontier Labor strike./Photo courtesy of University of Nevada, Las Vegas

1991: The Frontier Strike begins when 550 members of the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, Bartenders 165, Teamsters 995, Operating Engineers 501 and Carpenters 1780 walk out of the Frontier Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

The workers protested unfair treatment and wages in what would become the longest successful strike in U.S. history, lasting over six years. In February 1998, new casino ownership ended the strike, bringing back 280 of the original union employees.

2001: Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United is established to help bar and restaurant workers in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
The organization has since grown into a national nonprofit that fights for equity and fair pay for hospitality workers.

Also, this year, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, created its Citizenship Project to provide legal expertise and financial aid to union members who seek U.S. citizenship.

2017: Nonprofit campaign One Fair Wage is launched by Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC United, whose goal is for tipped workers to be paid the standard federal minimum wage.

Rebel Rebel’s Lauren Friel and John deBary, cofounder of the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation (RWCF), say this is a key factor in the future of bars. DeBary says that about 40% of restaurant and bar workers live in poverty.

“If we go back to that 40% number [following the coronavirus pandemic], I’ll consider that a huge failure,” he says.

Sign showing takeout options
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic brings income loss and uncertainty to some 16.8 million hospitality industry workers./Photo by David Dee Delgado, Bloomberg via Getty

2020: Bars and restaurants have only begun to grapple with the effects the coronavirus has had on the hospitality industry. As states and the federal government develop unemployment packages to aid those laid off or furloughed due to the crisis, organizations like America’s Table, ROC United, One Fair Wage, USBG, RWCF and countless others have worked to put together relief funds for the restaurant industry.

“The next step is going to be, how do we keep this from happening again?” says Nance.

Published on April 10, 2020
Topics: Drinks