Chef Career Choices: Union vs Non Union Jobs.


Before we start listing career directions and location types, we need to clear up one item, which will appear now and then in descriptions: Unions.

In fairness I have to say that although I grew up in a union environment and thank my education to the San Francisco Sheet Metal Workers’ Union,  where my mother was the executive administrator, bless you Jack Sigarsky,  I now  harbor a bias against them.

I believe the organization of labor was absolutely  necessary in the past and we owe them a great vote of thanks for making our working environments safe and civil, but they  have outlived their necessity, but their existence if not the exercise of their policies still serves a purpose.

By setting employment standards for union facilities they raise the bar across the line for all similar operations.   Compensation in highly unionized cities is always considerably higher than in nonunion towns, if only because independent employers fear that lower standards would expose them to organization. Their existence prevents all businesses from blatant exploitation of their staff, and closed shops (this means union only) indeed prevent abuse of employees.  Union employees are, on the whole, paid better than the average employee, have a varying amount of pension investment by the company at all levels and usually good health insurance, plus they enjoy a certain amount of job security.

So why would you not want a union job? In fact you may want one. If you just want an hourly job with good pay and more than decent working conditions, then you are a candidate for Local 2 or another facility.

But: today’s Unions have a few flies on them.  Union management are paid well to look out for the interests of their membership, and in order for the unions to survive, management has to continually convince membership that they have interests that need protecting. The basic assumption that they are there to avoid employee exploitation assumes that every employer wants to exploit employees and frequently sets an adversarial relation between management and employee. Much of what the unions demanded in fair employment conditions, however, has now been legislated for all businesses at various levels. Since unions serve no purpose if not to protect their membership, the concept of unfair practices has been expanded to include, for instance,  challenging employees  to upgrade their skills and perform to still higher standards, when existing practices or performance are incompatible with the demands of the higher levels of fine dining. Local 2 employees, for example,  filed complaints against the Miyako Hotel’s Elka restaurant some years ago for requiring that their staff take a test in English on the nature of the cuisine and the dishes, for instance. They had never had to do any such thing before.

Several chefs have told me that they were written up  by the union for requiring that their staff change to a lighter and thus somewhat more complex cuisine. I have little trouble believing them.  In general most staff who have been at one location for longer than ten years, and union staff tend to be very stable, will resent changes in structure or menu, so chefs taking on positions  with the mandate to improve or update the cuisine will be served well by commanding exceptional motivational skills.

According to some of the managers of union houses I have worked with, the underlying assumption of possible employee abuse can motivate employees to seek mistreatment where none exists or is intended, depending in part on the attitude of the shop steward and the willingness of the HR department not only to take and act on complaints but to investigate the underlying circumstances and at times go head to head with organized labor’s representatives. Quality oriented HR departments and management can ameliorate this.

Promotions in most Union facilities, furthermore, are based on tenure rather than merit, and most managers in union facilities find it extremely difficult to terminate or reappoint any  staff who can or will not meet higher or changing demands, or whose performance slips for any reason. Union kitchens and dining rooms, in other words are not meritocracies. The best performance does not win the highest rewards, so the standard of performance is lowered for everyone, bringing with it a lowered level of that challenge which creates professional growth .  This is one reason why  some hotels are now outsourcing their A la Carte restaurants to independent chefs or groups, since these seem better able to deal with the issues.  Some of these high end groups, by the way, have paid existing union staff several thousand dollars each to leave their jobs so more qualifies people could be hired.

Due to the cost of union staff, properties which expect their food service to make a normal profit have in past decided to shut down their high end outlets and focus on banquet and event facilities plus three meal restaurants.  San Francisco’s Grande Dame hotels quit trying to compete on the food level back  in the late eighties, as they were no longer willing or perhaps able to do support the staff necessary to put out a highly complex menu.  Those still trying rarely make plus star status.  With the exception of the few non Union properties in San Francisco, which pay union wages but have the option to choose and promote their staff based on performance and some unique properties like Minna (which we might note gave up serving high end cuisine for a more approachable and less labor intensive fare).

Another issue is that union houses divide up duties across strict lines. “That is not in my job description,” is the watchword of the conscious union employee, in part because he can be disciplined for doing something another crew member has a right to and supposedly taking away his job. A Chef de Cuisine we placed at the Carnelian Room nearly lost his job for asking a waiter to put a pint of cream in the walk-in. The server went straight to the top and filed a complaint. Our chef learned to deal with the situation, but noted that the resulting hurdles to teamwork mad his job much more difficult.  According to his boss, the employee had no choice but to make the complaint (I disagree, but that’s my stance), as,  had he done so, he, himself, would have been disciplined for threatening/taking away the job of another employee.

This depends on the place and the contract, however. In the most stringent of environments colored tiles are laid on the floors to prevent one group of jobs from crossing over into the territory of another.  What this means for the advancing culinary professional in many but not all locations is that the level set by the product and service is less challenging than in locations where the chef can make high demands and the standard across all stations is maximum achievable excellence. This means that, the opportunity to achieve culinary rigor and the breadth of experience and tasks offered to anyone in the learning phase of their career is limited by the job description system, so your professional growth may not be as great as it would be in a less restrictive environment.

The result is that nonunion employers are frequently reluctant to consider people who have been working in closed shops for jobs demanding a high degree of team work, entrepreneurial decision making and focus on quality. They assume, often rightly, that they have not been  held to the technical standards their kitchens require.

Union houses provide highly structured environments. Most of the rules for working with your colleagues and subordinates are set in stone.  There are few options for snap or arbitrary decision making in a union house, but for those who are wise and willing enough to read the guidelines, to keep records and to follow past procedures, upgrading them within a firm structure, they offer very achievable management guidelines.  Union houses promote within before going outside, which is a benefit for union employees. Those who  have taken some time in kitchens and dining rooms with organized labor generally concur that they have learned a great deal of management technique and best HR practices, which serves them very well in their future careers.

Management jobs in organized operations are challenging but possible.  The restrictions placed on management actions create a generally professional and civil environment in the work place.  Union houses tend to be larger than independents, and as such they often offer a greater degree of career advancement to multi-outlet executive positions and Food and Beverage Director positions not available through most independent groups. Not all union locations are, furthermore, the same.  Depending on management’s commitment to quality and standards of operation,  some can be very high end. This depends, too, on the nature of the union.

Summary: Union locations have specific rules which may impact the ability of an aspiring culinary professional to expand his or her exposure. The system rarely rewards or exacts top quality performance or product, thus possibly limiting both skill development and the impact of an employee’s resume.  They nearly always offer top pay for hourly jobs with very good benefits and working conditions. Managing union employees requires strict adherence to house rules and thus hinders entrepreneurial style decision making.  As many hotels are unionized, positions may offer desirable advancement opportunities not available in freestanding operations.  You should not turn down a Union job until you have looked at it and watched the structure of the kitchen, but you need to assess your goals and aptitude to work within a union structure before accepting one. Not all union  houses and not all unions are alike.