Protestors cheer outside a McDonald's restaurant during a demonstration demanding fast-food chains pay workers $15 an hour. AP Photo/David Goldman

There's still a long way to go, but a nationwide movement for better pay is making progress.

Union membership has been on the decline for decades, and this past year is no exception. In 2014, just over 11 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union, compared to 20.1 percent in 1983. Since 2000, the biggest declines "have come in occupations that were—and still are—among the most unionized in the country," reports the Pew Research Center. That's a big problem: Unions support the middle class, and research shows that their decline has had an outsized impact on economic inequality.

Unionization rates by job category

But there is one sector that has never traditionally been organized, yet that recently has been dominating the public conversation around labor: Restaurant workers. As the chart from Pew above shows, food prep and service hasn't seen unionization rates increase. But there have been advances for restaurant workers in the past couple of years that are worth reflecting on this May Day.

​Increases in minimum wage

The're been a sea change in the political consensus around the minimum wage in the past several years. The New York Times writes:

Seattle has moved to gradually increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour, from $9.32. Oakland, Calif., established a new minimum wage of $12.25, while Chicago approved an increase to $13, from $8.25, over the next four years. Alaska and Arkansas passed minimum wage increases by referendum in 2014.

In 2013, President Obama endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to $9, from $7.25 an hour, then increased that to $10.10 by the fall of that year.

A higher minimum wage is good for everyone, but it's had a special impact on traditionally low-wage restaurant workers. They've received bigger raises than most other workers. According to the Wall Street Journal, hourly pay in the restaurant industry grew 3.1 percent last year, after several years of less than 2 percent growth. That's largely because of minimum wage increases—although they still haven't gone far enough.

A growing national labor movement

In November 2012, the Service Employees International Union helped organized the first fast-food industry strike in American history, with some 200 New York City workers taking to the streets. More protests came to other cities in the ensuing years, and last month, "tens of thousands of low-wage workers, students and activists in more than 200 American cities" marched for a $15 minimum wage, according to the Times.

The Fight for $15 movement has proved a remarkable effort from an industry that's been notoriously difficult to organize from a labor perspective. It remains to be seen whether fast-food workers can unionize in significant numbers (though one New York City restaurant, largely staffed by undocumented workers, provides an inspiring model). But the protests have played a role in pushing Walmart, Target, and McDonald’s to increase their base pay.

“The labor movement has been stuck,” Janice R. Fine, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, told the Times. “[Fight for $15 protests] deserve a lot of credit in deciding that, in a situation this bleak, you needed ‘climate change’”—that is, a change in how the public views low-wage work—“before you’d actually get an opportunity to organize again.”

Restaurants experiment with abolishing tipping

A handful of fine-dining establishments in San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and beyond have done away with tips. It's a controversial story, since paying gratuities is such a well-ingrained institution, and it's well-known that many servers make most of their income from tips. But the case for abolishing gratuities and instead putting in place a 15 to 20 percent service charge that is equitably distributed to all restaurant workers, is strong. Brian Palmer writes at Slate:

Tipping does not incentivize hard work. The factors that correlate most strongly to tip size have virtually nothing to do with the quality of service. Credit card tips are larger than cash tips. Large parties with sizable bills leave disproportionately small tips. We tip servers more if they tell us their names, touch us on the arm, or draw smiley faces on our checks. Quality of service has a laughably small impact on tip size. According to a 2000 study, a customer’s assessment of the server’s work only accounts for between 1 and 5 percent of the variation in tips at a restaurant.

It also perpetuates racism and sexism: Researchers have found that female servers make more tips on average than men, that "sexy" women make more than "average," and that white servers make more than their black colleagues—again, regardless of the perceived quality of service.

And most of all, even with "tip-out" policies, tipping creates a huge disparity in income between front and back of house servers.

Seattle's Sea Creatures restaurant group announced last week that their three locations would be striking tips and instead instituting an 18.5 percent service fee, partly because of the city's minimum wage increase. A statement further explains the decision:

• Service charge dollars can be shared among all of our employees. This means a smaller wage gap between back of the house and front of the house workers.

• A Service charge will help us to provide comprehensive benefits to employees, including health insurance and matching retirement savings accounts.

• Implementing a Service charge will allow us to pay employees a higher minimum/guaranteed wage, while maintaining everyone's current total take home pay.

That's fantastic news for employees of Sea Creatures, and at the other eateries making similar moves across the country.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of restaurant workers, such a policy is likely out of reach because the law allows employers to subsidize salaries with tips. While California, Washington, Alaska, and four other states require employers to pay the full state minimum wage before tips, most don't. They allow restaurant managers to pay their employees well under federal minimum wage, so long as their tips make up the difference. In many places, service workers who receive gratuities make as little as $2.13 an hour from their employer. That's a disaster: It forces customers to be co-employers, often without realizing it.

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Fortunately, a growing number of states are looking to increase or eliminate their tipped minimum wages. With 1 in 6 restaurant workers living below the poverty line, there's still a long way to go. But at least we're finally seeing some momentum.

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