Tipping The Balance On Tipping Culture: A Contradictory Perspective From Unions

by | Feb 5, 2024 | DOL, Independents, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Legal, NLRB, Retail, SEIU, Service Industry, Union Organizing, Unions, USSW

There is no shortage of opinions on the practice of tipping in the U.S. The subject can grow quite heated, and the debate – which has included customers feeling conflicted over prompts to tip for carryout food – has introduced “tipping culture” into the lexicon, sometimes as a pejorative.

We are not here today to question why full-service food servers prefer the tipping system. That seems obvious, and in some states, servers have even pushed back on legislation to raise the tipped wage because this would reduce their tips and overall take-home pay. The tipping of servers is so customary that the practice is here to stay, although some restaurants have attempted to reverse the trend without much success. We will, however, discuss why unions are eager to spread tipping elsewhere.

That is to say, tipping is a complex issue that should be treated with nuance, yet it’s not all roses and sunshine, as unions would love to claim.

The ugly U.S. history of tipping: The origins of tipping are actually rather awful and have been summarized within the New York Times as a “legacy of slavery.” Similarly, progressive publication New Republic has called tipping “immoral,” while Labor Notes has noted how tipped workers are more vulnerable to sexual harassment by clientele.

Unions appear to ignore such history, and in fact, they aim to expand the practice far beyond full-service restaurants:

Why the support from unions? Tipping is a no-risk ask from unions, who will claim credit for the “win.” Unions could also benefit, depending on how dues are structured, from workers’ higher overall pay as a result of tips. That detail is tricky, too, because it’s unclear how much Starbucks Workers United (an SEIU affiliate) benefits from tips, given that the union’s website states that dues are calculated differently by region. Some unionized cafes might pay dues at flat rates from full-time vs. part-time workers, whereas some SEIU locals in various industries take a percentage of earnings as dues. In the latter case, tips would certainly increase dues revenue for unions.

And the red tape: The Department of Labor holds a complex set of rules for employers to follow for tipped workers regarding reporting and taxation. Granted, these protections should exist to protect against wage theft, an accusation from Waffle House servers who have joined a class action lawsuit to claim that the restaurant hasn’t compensated servers for non-tipped work hours to bring them up to minimum wage.

This Waffle House controversy aside – the company is also a target of the fledgling, SEIU-affiliated Union of Southern Service Workers, who have lobbied for $25 per hour wages plus tips for servers – it’s clear that unions are not acting selfless in attempting to spread tipping around as much as possible. They intend for tips to improve recruitment, which adds up to more union dues.

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