A Look Back at the 1912 Waiters Strike

Hotel Voice, Spring 2022

The first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers, once said that New York was the cradle of the American Labor Movement. In the early 1900s, New York workers across different industries were organizing themselves to fight against terrible conditions. Among these workers were hotel workers who attempted to organize against the exploitation of the hospitality industry. Twenty-six years before the successful formation of the powerful Hotel Trades Council in 1938, these workers organized the first strike of hotel workers in New York City. This May marked the 110th anniversary of the 1912 ‘Waiters Strike,’ and we should look back in history to see how far union hotel workers have come since the seedlings of our union were planted.

The International Hotel Workers Union (IHWU) strike began on May 7th, 1912, at the Hotel Belmont with about 300 workers walking out. On May 16th of 1912, the dues-paying members of IHWU assembled their executive board in the meeting room of the International Geneva Association, which was the caterers union at the time. They met to draft a list of demands that would cover the workers of different hotels and restaurants. After a meeting that lasted from 10:00pm to 6:00am, the agreement was to be presented to the Hotel Men’s Association, the powerful group of hotel owners, who waited anxiously to find out what their workers were asking for. The demands were:

  1. One day off every week.
  2. A ten-hour work-day
  3. $10.00 a week for Steady Waiters.
  4. Sanitary lockers and toilets, one locker for each individual.
  5. Continuous overtime: .50 per hour for waiters, and .25 for bussers.
  6. Good and wholesome food, daily change of menu.
  7. No employee to be discharged without the signature on pay-check of the management.
  8. No fines.
  9. Weekly pay.

Waiters and bussers were fined for things like dropping a spoon, speaking to each other, and smiling in the dining-room. This might sound ludicrous now, but this is what our industry was up against 110 years ago. Staff were also paid monthly and were sometimes fired without a signature on their last paycheck. These were the demands of waiters and bussers, but IHWU also demanded a minimum wage and a six day work-week for room attendants, porters, bellmen, and workers in the kitchen department. The most important demand, though, was recognition of their union by the Hotel Men’s Association.

By May 24th, the strike had spread through the industry like wildfire. The Times encapsulated the fear of a spreading hotel industry strike in an article titled, ‘Waiters strike spreading fast,’ in the May 31st edition of the paper. The article explains how the hotel owners would never recognize a union and planned on breaking the strike with replacement workers, known to the union as ‘scabs.’ F.A. Reed, who was President of the Hotel Men’s Association, threatened to close every associated hotel before accepting IHWU’s recognition. The Association was better financed and better organized than the IHWU and had no intention of giving in.

On June 14th, management offered to concede all demands except for one. They would never recognize a hotel union for their workers. This was a smart tactic by the Hotel Men’s Association because it created a wedge between the financially strapped workers: those who wanted to get back to work with the new settlement and those that wanted to hold out for union recognition. Ultimately, on June 25th, 1912, union members voted to halt the strike. The most vocal unionists were blacklisted from the industry, and the rest of the waiters went back to work. IHWU was disbanded not too long after the strike.

Some historians describe this strike as a failed strike, however workers kept fighting and struck again in 1918, 1929, and 1934. It wasn’t until March 23, 1938, that the Hotel Association signed an agreement which recognized the Hotel Trades Council. IHWU’s visionary idea of organizing hotel workers of every job title into one union would finally be realized on January 18, 1939, when the better organized HTC signed its first contract. Let us never forget what it took to get to our current contract and let us preserve it and add to our progressive legacy.