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You Got Served

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to Jo Page’s “The Power of Waiting” [Reckonings, Feb. 17] because I’m a longtime local food server who was dismayed by the sexist assumptions underlying her piece. Although Page’s column was intended to be funny, and although I’m sure she didn’t intend it to be read politically, her column indeed addresses politics of a different sort: the politics of gender.

I could compose a scathing diatribe, citing the less-than-glamorous occupational hazards and horror stories of being female and waiting tables for a living, not to mention all the unwanted flirtatious attention by male dining partners on heterosexual dates. And yes, I admit some of my less experienced sisters have not learned how to navigate the awkward dynamic of waiting on couples. I’ve been victim to such behavior myself not only when dining out, but in other non- dining situations as well. I’ve been ignored by both women and men who deemed my personhood less important than my male companion’s, and yes, it’s hurtful, diminishing, and rude. But that behavior isn’t exclusively a “waitress” thing.

Since Page alluded to metaphysical ontology, here’s another theoretical concept with which she is undoubtedly familiar: patriarchy. The attitudes Page experienced and her reactions to them are the results of a patriarchal system that still expects women to compete with each other for the attention of men, and still encourages women to judge each other’s physical appearances (“sculpted butts” and “snotty gait” are two examples). When we buy into this system, we perpetuate it. I have always assumed that women who have been kind enough to say “when you have a chance” are acknowledging a sisterhood, and not shriveling, intimidated, in their chairs. I hope Page’s feeling “chastened” is exceptional, and that her fearing and coveting the confident aloofness the job develops in many of us is not a signal of a “subculture” of “silent, envious women.”

Page says she prefers [male] waiters because they don’t make her feel unglamorous or “like a vile wench for wanting a glass of water without ice.” Perhaps some women do prefer male servers, perhaps for the same reasons, or perhaps they feel that men don’t mind unsolicited flirting while they’re pouring your coffee. What goes unsaid in “The Power of Waiting” is that power is indeed at play in these exchanges, and the cost is real and material for us if we piss someone off. I’m not in the habit of referencing Billy Joel, but what we’re doing every time we pour your decaf and laugh at your dining partner’s flirty (and probably not very funny) jokes is indeed the practice of politics.

While I read most of Page’s latest column with the proverbial grain of salt, I have to wonder in what Hollywood, ideologically produced reality she lives that her servers are all potential movie stars. She protests that “it’s not about guilt or class-on-class oppression.” Many waitresses in the United States are scraping by upon, to borrow from Barbara Ehrenreich, nickels and dimes–for most it isn’t about earning artsy cred en route to some creative career; it’s about feeding and sheltering themselves and their children. Since Page has never worked in a restaurant, allow me to demystify the gig for her: Dining out is a socially artificial and bourgeois experience, enacting a contract within a capitalist system. That is, the restaurant’s proprietor pays us $3.85 an hour to serve food with a smile, and we hope to perform well enough to receive 20-percent tips from customers as they pay the bill. It isn’t mysterious, and although it is a performance of the negotiation of gendered roles, it is sure as heck isn’t glamorous. Telling us you want our “weary glamour” and “steely gaze” feels like a backward compliment, like when someone says, “Great outfit; most people wouldn’t have the guts to wear that!”

So Jo Page, listen up: Thank you for being polite to servers—countless people are not. Thank you for generous tipping—our livelihoods depend upon it. Thank you for saying “when you have a chance” while requesting more Hollandaise—we truly do appreciate it as an acknowledgement that we’re busy even if your friends consider it to be obsequious. In the future, if you want water without ice, simply ask for it that way because no one minds, and if that’s the most complicated special order of our evening, we’re having a rare, stress-free night. And as for the easy access to the Bombay gin, let us assure you that because the food- service industry is a giant perpetuator of a patriarchal economic system which contains many hidden social costs, nothing and no one is ever truly free.

Deanna DiCarlo

Albany

The Collective Good

To the Editor:

“No Union, Please” [Letters, Feb.10] struck me as indicative of the sad state of working-class consciousness in America. Part of me still wants to believe it is management propaganda, but a rational portion of my brain realizes that the political and economic consciousness of American workers is low enough to allow for pro-management opinions in the low-wage, unskilled service sector, in a company which completely monopolizes its sector (and thus faces no wage competition).

The letter itself suffers from critical flaws in judgment and reasoning. Apparently, the author is satisfied (at 49 years of age) to be working for $8.50 an hour, and believes her fellow workers should be, as well, as if it were some preordained wage level decreed by the Ticketmaster gods. Yet American wages have been generally stagnant since the Nixon recession of 1973, and the value of minimum wage has fallen over 25 percent in the last 25 years. Benefits have been under attack throughout the same period; all the while productivity in America has increased by 25 percent or more.

Do things have to be this way? Obviously not. On the whole, unions raise wages by 20 percent, and compensation (wages and benefits) by 28 percent. Statistically, union members are up to 28 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, with 18 percent lower deductibles. If this were not enough, union workers receive 26 percent more vacation time than their nonunion counterparts. Unlike the assumptions of the author of last week’s letter, the increased wages (possibly even a living wage, and not a paltry $8.50 an hour) a union would bring more than compensates for small amounts of union dues—which, incidentally, would constitute a strike fund during a walkout/lockout period.

There is another portion of the debate on unions the author ignores: their great potential for creating a radical and democratic culture. A union is what the workers make of it. Many unions, indeed, are run by bureaucrats whose goal is to conciliate corporations and members of the ruling class. Some, like UE, the ILWU, and the IWW, are politically active and democratic. They are so because members have worked to make them real unions, and not passive and hierarchical tools of their hired officials. Workers in those unions do not have to use an anonymous opinion box, but can air grievances openly without fear of recrimination, suggest policy changes and possibly even implement them because of union strength. A union at Ticketmaster could be like these examples, a democratizing force instead of a burden.

In the end, the interests of management and working-class citizens are diametrically opposed. The author says many people are content with the rules of the store—but what if they were not? There is no way for workers in this economy to set the rules themselves, or to participate in changing them. It is part of that taboo phrase—the class struggle—something American workers must relearn. Unions create many tangible benefits for their members: higher wages, health care, and job security—and the possibility of a democratic organization where employees can act collectively, and shape the working environment instead of it shaping them. Yet, unions are part of that class struggle that management and ownership have done their best to persuade us no longer exists—a fight between a minority business elite in corporations like Ticketmaster who run workplaces and the economy for themselves, and the potential embodied in working-class solidarity, which envisions a new society in embryo, with an economy based around human need. A strong, combative, democratic union can provide all of these things.

Peter LaVenia

Chair, Albany County Green Party

Metroland welcomes typed, double-spaced letters (computer printouts OK), addressed to the editor. Or you may e-mail them to: metroland@metroland.net. Metroland reserves the right to edit letters for length; 300 words is the preferred maximum. You must include your name, address and day and evening telephone numbers. We will not publish letters that cannot be verified, nor those that are illegible, irresponsible or factually inaccurate.

Send to:
Letters, Metroland, 4 Central Ave.,
4th Floor, Albany, NY 12210
or e-mail us at metroland@metroland.net.


 
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