Waitresses in Action: Recovering the History of Labour Feminism
Restaurant and food service workers – an estimated 1.3 million in Canada – face an uphill organizing battle. Precarious working conditions and powerful, hostile employers, often large chains with endless anti-union resources, create a difficult environment for those trying to unionize.
Serving work was historically hard to organize, though the unionization of “waiters and waitresses” was more widespread in the US than in Canada, at least until the 1970s. Still, there were sporadic Canadian efforts to secure a better deal for serving labour in Canada.
In a forthcoming article in Labour/Le Travail historian Joan Sangster analyses one effort to mobilize waitresses tied to ‘second wave’ feminism in the 1970s, a time of renewed efforts to organize women workers inside and outside unions to achieve equality and dignity. The Waitresses Action Committee (WAC) emerged in 1977 in opposition to the Ontario Conservative government’s policy of scaling back the minimum wage of those serving alcohol in restaurants and bars.
Created by members of the local Wages for Housework group, the WAC created a spirited campaign that focused public attention on the injustice of the two-tiered minimum wage. In the process, it publicized a feminist critique of the exploitation of servers and the sexual harassment and sexualized performance demanded of waitresses.
The story of the Waitresses Action Committee reveals a hidden history of innovative waitress organizing as well as the ideological diversity of second wave feminism, including grass roots efforts to link labour, feminist and socialist activism.
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