There is great unrest among the working class in this country, a pre-French Revolution upheaval that’s been heating to a boil. In July alone, four million Americans quit their jobs, and fast-food chains have had to shut their doors for lack of staff. This Great Resignation is the result of growing inequality and the slow dissolution of the middle class. With living expenses nearly doubling and wages remaining stagnant, gone are the days when a single factory worker could provide for a family of four while affording decent housing, a car, and a white picket fence. When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos takes personal rockets into space, as elementary school teachers have to beg parents for basic school supplies, accident victims jump from gurneys to avoid paying ambulance fees, and blue-collar workers lose their life savings to a single hospital bill, we’re gonna have problems. Now, while I’d like to join the plebian mob marching on Wall Street to guillotine some billionaires’ necks, given the social media narrative driving the current movement, I fear I’ll be losing my head as well, because, in this revolution, my personal income simply doesn’t matter, only whether I can be called an employer. It brings to mind Dr. Alexandre Manette from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, who is imprisoned by the impoverished, bloodthirsty mob, owing to his aristocratic background.
A Facebook moderator from The Other 98% said this today:
The amount of bootlickers in this thread defending abusive employers is the reason these servers are still paid $2/hour. Americans have been so thoroughly brainwashed to believe that the owners interests are also their interests. At least millions of people are waking up. But to the people defending this insane list of demands, my only question is, how do you like your boot prepared, medium rare or well done?
This comment received 7.7 thousand likes! Another commentator had this to say in response:
People don’t defend tipping, bosses defend tipping!
The message is clear: “bosses” aren’t people. We are greedy, unfeeling monsters, straight out of a Dickens novel, incapable of compassion, who actively seek to brainwash our employees! No wonder my life has been repeatedly threatened by cooks wielding knives! By virtue of owning a business, I am a terrible human being. Apparently.
It saddens me that I have to point out the obvious, but here it is: not all employers are rich! And, in many cases, some of us are actually poor. So, when I see all these angry Facebook/Twitter/YouTube mods proclaiming: STOP PAYING PEOPLE SLAVE WAGES! I get seriously annoyed. In case you didn’t know, my family has been in the restaurant business for over fifty years. My parents, after working like literal slaves for four decades, amassed a small fortune, which they quickly lost after the 2006 recession. Please keep in mind, I am not being hyperbolic when I say my parents worked like slaves (yes, they made money, but we’re talking labor conditions here). The work they put in would shock just about anyone bitching from the comfort of their cell phones. A little background: mom and dad were born in Greece in the 1930s, at a time when death by starvation was not unusual. They grew up in a world where it was tradition to ask, “How many children did you have and how many survived?” When my father arrived in New York harbor in 1952, he was penniless, only managing to escape homelessness thanks to a distant relation. He started off as a dishwasher and slowly worked his way up to owning a small pizza shop. My mother joined him shortly after they were married and together they labored twelve to fourteen hour days. They did not take weekends off, or holidays, nor did they allow themselves to stay home if they were ill. As my father used to say to me, “I have never been sick.” When my mother did get pregnant, she did not quit making pizzas, working up until the moment of delivery. Her first child basically grew up alone. My siblings, too young to contribute to the cult of work my father created, were sent off to Greece to live with an aunt until they were old enough to come back and stretch doughballs. Now you might be saying, Nick, your parents chose that life for themselves. They weren’t slaves! But think about it this way: would they be killing themselves without good reason? Would they have sacrificed a life with their children over simple greed? Could it be that the same harsh economic conditions driving so many impoverished workers today—fear of hunger and homelessness—motivated them in the same way? And don’t all workers, living under the threat of poverty, choose employment even in the most exploitative of environments? Yes, my father had the option to work in a factory, but then he’d be falling into the same abusive environment, back at a time when workers had even fewer rights than they do today, and without any hope of a better future.
OK, that was then, this is now. But here’s what so many keyboard warriors are failing to realize: the same economy driving the Great Resignation—rising inequality and a shrinking middle class—is also devastating small business owners. We’re not talking McDonald’s CEOs here, but mom and pop shop owners like my parents, who often struggle just as much, if not more, than the most exploited employees. There are only TWO jobs in America where you can legally earn less than the minimum wage: farm laborer and business owner. During the recession, my income often dipped below the minimum wage. I once challenged a very incredulous driver to show me his bank statement, after he called me Warren Buffet, to prove to him that I made less than he did (I had, at the time, less than a $100 in my account). Less fortunate restauranteurs, as you will often see in shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Restaurant Impossible, end up losing a lifetime of savings, which is why you always see them in tears, because they are so deep in debt they can never get out of it in their lifetimes. My sister, after slaving away for 30+ years as an employer, showed less than $16k on her W2. My brother, also an employer, joined his drivers to make extra tips when times were tough. Where are the government programs ensuring employers get benefits? We don’t get overtime, or pensions, or sick days, or paid vacations. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone hungry because I was too busy to take a lunch break. For roughly ten years, my wife and I couldn’t spend a single weekend with the kids because we worked Fridays through Sundays every week. I never got days off for my birthday, holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I even had to open during a hurricane thanks to my overbearing father. As of this post, I cannot afford health insurance for myself, let alone offer it to my workers. People who have never run a business imagine every boss as a cold-hearted Ebeneezer, forcing their workers to do things they would never do, but in my experience, it’s the bosses coming in early to do what everyone else refuses to do. Kid left the men’s room sink full of puke? Incontinent senior patron shat all over the bathroom floor? Urinal yellow with pee? Guess who cleans that up? Not the dishwasher!
Tough titty, you say, don’t run a restaurant if you can’t pay above slave wages, I hear, and sure, maybe that’s good advice. But here’s the thing: I haven’t done anything differently; I never raked in the profits while my employees starved. It’s the economy that’s changed, runaway inflation that’s devalued what we’ve always been paying, turning us into villains. Basic living expenses: health insurance, medicine, groceries, and rent, have nearly doubled in the past two decades, making it more expensive not just for employees to survive but employers as well! Yes, we’re in the same boat here. So, if the solution is to simply pay more, you have to ask, where is all that extra money going to come from, if your business barely skates by and the inflation hurting your workers is also hurting you? And why, oh why, is the plebian mob going after restaurant owners exclusively? Why aren’t more people raising their pitchforks at the hospitals, banks, and landlords, most of whom, I am certain, can afford to charge less and make less? I am not a CEO. I do not make billions or millions just because I own a restaurant. I lift heavy boxes to save ten dollars on cases of French fries.
But fine. Whatever. Let’s say I shut down my pizza place at great personal risk. What happens to the people who work for me? Contrary to what Facebook will have you believe, tipped employees make bank (at least ours do, anyway). I’ve hired applicants who quit working for lawyers and doctors to wait tables. Despite accusations that servers are basically untouchables working for $2 and that I (greedy employer that I am) use customers to provide a livable wage, the reality could not be further from the truth. Even on your average Monday, my tipped employees can make $200 a shift. Ten minutes ago, my driver left disappointed having made $17.25/hour. If a worker makes less than the minimum wage, currently $10 in Florida, I have to make up the difference. But this is never the case because servers and drivers easily make upwards of $15. The people who really deserve more pay are the cooks, because they work a lot harder. But the restaurant can’t afford a $15 hourly rate for everyone without dramatic markups on pizza, and the pizza business is highly competitive. If I were to charge $20 for a plain cheese and Joe Blow down the street asks for $15, you are going to lose the money you hoped to earn to pay a livable wage. Think of it this way: if charging more were so easy, why wouldn’t owners have done it to pay themselves more?
Please bear in mind, I am not opposed to a government-mandated wage increase. I actually voted for a $15 minimum. This is what, I think, government is for. Forcing employers to comply with the same rules evens the playing field, so if I am forced to raise my prices, so is Joe Blow. Thing is, these kinds of changes threaten small business owners who aren’t doing as well as we are. The CEOs of Cheesecake Factory and Carrabbas can take a pay cut, but family-owned shops simply can’t, and the result is the little guy gets squeezed out by the big chains. Say goodbye to your favorite mom-and-pop shop around the corner because only the biggest companies will profit, and when every franchise is owned by a billionaire CEO, the middle class will disappear, creating the wealth disparity currently driving the Great Resignation.
Instead of demonizing all employers, instead of clumping every business owner with Jeff Bezos, how ’bout we turn our attentions to supporting the MIDDLE CLASS, because the middle class thrives on small family-owned stores like the one my parents built so many years ago. If there’s going to be a worker revolution—I’ll be marching along with the workers—but let’s be sensible and not start beheading people in the same income bracket just because they sign a paycheck.