Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Dishing It Out

Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century

  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Dishing It Out
    Book Description:

    Never fails to speak with the voice of the unconventional women most of whom were single wage earners living apart from traditional family structures. Cobble's gendered analysis interprets their voices using the larger social forces of the food industry, the labor movement, and societal economic and political institutions. -- Work and Occupations

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09623-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    For twenty-seven years, the restaurant had been a “haven for many West Hollywood singles, old and young.” The menu was nothing fancy—“the usual eggs and burgers available all over town”—and the decor was “all-American coffee shop,” but customers were fiercely loyal, “drawn by what one called the waitresses’ good will.” Yet when a new owner took over in 1984, he replaced “the doting middle-aged women—many of whom had been at the job 10 years or more” with younger help. The fired employees, ranging in age from sixty to seventy, organized as “the granny waitresses” and refused to...

  2. I The Occupational Community of Waitressing

    • CHAPTER ONE The Rise of Waitressing: Feminization, Expansion, and Respectability
      (pp. 17-33)

      George Smith, a veteran waiter, was “not worried” about competition from waitresses, a Detroit union journal headlined in 1942. According to Smitty, a few women could “carry a tray with the best of men and dish out first class service,” but “to work in the best jobs” you had “to learn to whisper in the dining room and holler in the kitchen.” Most waitresses, he insisted, simply got confused. They were “either delicate flowers who whisper[ed] both places, with the result that the chef [did not] ... get the orders straight, or Amazons who holler[ed] in the dining rooms as...

    • CHAPTER TWO Work Conditions and Work Culture
      (pp. 34-58)

      Thrown onto her own resources by a marital separation, Joan Crawford in Warner Brothers’ 1945 film Mildred Pierce wanders the streets in search of work. Exhausted and demoralized, Crawford stops for a cup of tea at a downtown restaurant. In desperate need of waitresses, the crusty head hostess, Eve Arden, agrees to “give her a trial.” Crawford proves her mettle, meeting the physical and emotional demands of the job; she even finds herself enjoying the tips and the bustling atmosphere of the restaurant. Crawford soon opens her own restaurant and then another and another, eventually becoming wealthy. In the end,...

  3. II Waitresses Turn to Economic and Political Organization

    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 59-60)

      Before the 1930s, few American workers were organized: in 1920, at the peak of pre-New Deal organizational strength only a fifth of the nonagricultural work force belonged to unions. The situation changed dramatically during the 1930s and 1940s as workers flocked to the labor movement and for the first time in American history gained collectively bargaining agreements in such major industries as steel, auto, and communications. Nevertheless, by the early 1950s, union growth sputtered to a halt, reaching a high-water mark in 1954 with 35 percent of the nonagricultural labor force organized.¹

      Although the patterns of union growth among wage-earning...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Emergence and Survival of Waitress Unionism, 1900–1930
      (pp. 61-85)

      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.² Moreover, as recent scholars have argued, many women workers may have preferred to exert collective power in ways other than unionization.³ 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...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Flush of Victory, 1930–55
      (pp. 86-111)

      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.² 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.³

      As the...

  4. III The Waitress as Craft Unionist

    • CHAPTER FIVE Uplifting the Sisters in the Craft
      (pp. 115-136)

      The goals waitresses enumerated in their union bylaws and constitutions often began with the classic sentiments so often voiced by male craft unionists.³ “The object of this organization,” the St. Louis waitresses announced in their turn-of-the-century bylaws, “shall be to elevate the moral, social and intellectual standing” of our members and “to establish better wages, hours and working conditions.”⁴ From these class concerns, waitresses typically moved on to more explicitly gendered territory. The constitutions of the Boston and the Buffalo waitresses—from the era before World War I to the 196os—resembled that of St. Louis almost word for word,...

    • CHAPTER SIX Waitress Unionism: Rethinking Categories
      (pp. 137-148)

      When workers organize, they face collective choices about how to proceed organizationally. Practices must be developed to govern the day-to-day interaction with employers, and rules must be devised to oversee the union’s relationship with its members. For union organizations—described by A. J. Muste as “part town meeting and part army”²—the regulations must allow for member participation and dissent without unduly jeopardizing the union’s strength in bargaining. In response to these challenges, waitresses devised a form of unionism that for nearly a half a century fostered worker loyalty to the organization and enabled them to exert control over their...

  5. IV Controversies over Gender

    • [IV Introduction]
      (pp. 149-150)

      Reflecting the realities of their lives as women who were often self-supporting and outside the traditional family unit, waitresses rejected arguments that assumed their economic or emotional reliance on a primary male wage earner. They fought tenaciously for their share of waiting jobs, they pushed for equal pay once they perceived it as no longer a threat to their basic livelihood, and they demanded the right to self-representation in the political life of their union. The idea of giving up their jobs to a male breadwinner or their political independence to a male protector were options they discarded. In other...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN “Women’s Place” in the Industry
      (pp. 151-173)

      In 1959, entering her third decade of leadership in the Los Angeles waitress local, Mae Stoneman wrote the International “in desperation,” complaining that “over a long period of time” her members had “been handicapped, harassed, maligned, and abused by officers and employees of the waiters’ union.” Most recently, the waiters’ local forbade busboys to assist waitresses with heavy trays, claiming that “it would place the waiters in an unfair position if waitresses [were] ... permitted to replace them and receive the same pay for lighter duties.” Two years earlier, waiters had set up a picket line at the Coconut Grove...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT “Women’s Place” in the Union
      (pp. 174-191)

      The underrepresentation of women in the activities and leadership of the labor movement has been a long-standing problem shared by virtually all unions. In the early decades of the twentieth century, men were even officers of organizations such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) that boasted a majority of female members.² The patterns of male dominance survived the rise of the industrial union movement in the 1930s and 1940s and the influx of women into unions during World War II.³ In 1986, researchers could still report that despite the growing ranks of women in unions, the number in...

  6. EPILOGUE The Decline of Waitress Unionism
    (pp. 192-204)

    When the new owner of the West Hollywood coffee shop fired the “granny waitresses” in 1984, he also fired the union. The courts placed few obstacles in his path: with new employees and a slight change in “business orientation,” his legal obligation to “bargain in good faith” had ended. The granny waitresses responded as so many others of their trade had done in the past: they picketed; they reached out to customers and to women’s organizations; they turned to the larger male-dominated labor movement for backup. Their close-knit occupational community and their sense of pride in providing “good, loyal service”...

  7. APPENDIX Tables and Figures
    (pp. 205-218)
  8. Abbreviations Used in the Notes
    (pp. 219-222)