It is a truth universally acknowledged that any mention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the news must be accompanied by a flurry of responses from detractors reciting a common refrain: Shut up and sit down, bartender. A recent flurry of Tweets provides just a small sample: “HEY BARTENDER... COULD YOU MAKE ME A TEQUILA SUNRISE”; “Lady, you are a one sick case of waitresses playing politics gone awfully wrong.”; “This is the reason you don’t allow bartenders and waitresses too [sic] work in Congress, you get complete stupidity !!!!”
By now, Ocasio-Cortez’s history in the service industry — she bartended and waitressed for years after graduating college, before becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at the age of 29 last year — is the stuff of legend, an origin story for a superhero-like figure many have come to regard as the future of the left. Since Ocasio-Cortez won her primary against Democratic Party heavyweight Rep. Joe Crowley one year ago, “bartender turned politician” has more or less become her epithet, an easy phrase to use in headlines to signal the sheer unexpectedness of her meteoric rise — and apparent novelty of her service background.
The way that the media, the public, and other politicians have talked about Ocasio-Cortez’s bartending and waitressing experience has always been dubious, framed not just as an objective fact, but imbued with extra meaning. The precise slant of that message may differ depending on the context and the speaker’s intent. Conservative televangelist Pat Robertson dismissing Ocasio-Cortez as a bartender “with no particular education” is not the same as supporters marveling at the intelligence and political savvy of a “former bartender,” but the undertones skew uncomfortably close, revealing the classist attitudes with which many Americans (inadvertently or not) still view servers and other tipped workers.
I find it revealing when people mock where I came from, & say they’re going to “send me back to waitressing,” as if that is bad or shameful.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 8, 2019
It’s as though they think being a member of Congress makes you intrinsically “better” than a waitress.
But our job is to serve, not rule.
Service workers still face belittlement and condescension — even well-meaning defenders might employ comments lamenting how “structural inequalities leave talented people ‘trapped’ or ‘wasting their potential’ behind the bar,” as Gavin Jenkins pointed out in a piece for The Outline — thanks to long-held stigmas informed by classism, racism, and sexism.
“Service workers are seen as not professional; [they’re] disposable workers, basically slave labor,” said Saru Jayaraman, the president of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, in a phone interview. According to Jayaraman, the restaurant lobby has lobbied for 150 years to pay service workers next to nothing on the basis of the work being billed as “temporary” and not for “skilled professionals,” despite the very real labor, skills, and challenges involved with the job.
This messaging goes all the way back to the time of Emancipation, when restaurants and other businesses in America fought to keep tipping as a way to employ newly freed slaves without having to pay them, leaving the primarily black, female workers with a $0 wage and completely dependent on customers’ gratuities. This practice was formalized in 1938 as part of the New Deal, creating a two-tiered wage system for tipped and non-tipped workers. In the 81 years since then, the subminimum wage for tipped workers has risen to a paltry $2.13 per hour.
Women, many of them black and brown women of color, bear the brunt of this institutionalized economic inequity. It’s no coincidence that more than 70 percent of servers are women, Jayaraman said. “The fact that the largest employer of women in America [aka the service industry] gets to pay $2 — it’s just a direct indication of the value America places on women.” Ocasio-Cortez herself pointed out last month that an environment in which servers’ paychecks are tied directly to customer satisfaction fosters sexual harassment. “You were more likely to stand up for yourself and reject sexual harassment on the 15th of the month, or maybe the 10th of the month,” she said during an event in which she served drinks and waited tables to support efforts to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. “But on the 29th of the month, you will let that person touch you because of your economic desperation.”
What’s strange is that none of this is a secret. Half of all Americans — including politicians beyond Ocasio-Cortez, not to mention Hill staffers who even now have to supplement their incomes with shifts at a bar — have worked in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives, according to Jayaraman and restaurant lobby groups like the National Restaurant Association. It stands to reason that many of those people have experienced first-hand the challenges and demands associated with such jobs, and should, in theory, be sympathetic to the service workers who seek livable wages, better working conditions, and dignity. So why the cognitive dissonance?
“A lot of Americans look with some nostalgia, fondness, sometimes horror on their earlier experiences because it was when they were young, working in restaurants. Then they ‘move on to something better,’ and they see the people who stay in that industry as somehow less than,” said Jayaraman, blaming restaurant industry groups for this kind of messaging. In this way, it’s yet another extension of the bootstrapping narrative: a teenager waiting tables as their first part-time job may know all too well how difficult it is, but because they eventually moved on to a real “profession,” everyone else should be able to, too, right?
The irony is that Ocasio-Cortez, among other former servers turned politicians, has, by that interpretation, “bootstrapped” her way all the way to the House of Representatives; following that logic, believers in the meritocracy myth should be celebrating her.
And the fact is, the skills acquired in the restaurant industry lead to stronger, better-equipped candidates for elected office. Moira Walsh, a 28-year-old member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives who waitressed after graduating high school all the way through part of her first term in 2017, revealed over the phone that being in the service industry was an asset while campaigning. “I was accustomed to being on my feet for eight hours a day, I was accustomed to doing a lot of running around back and forth,” she said. “I was really good at smiling when people said really inappropriate things to me and kind of letting it roll off my back, which are really good skill sets to have during campaign season.”
Ocasio-Cortez (whose team declined to comment for this article) has shared on Twitter the extent to which her service experience has prepared her for congressional duties: “Bartending + waitressing (especially in NYC) means you talk to 1000s of people over the years,” she wrote. “Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector. Just goes to show that what some consider to be ‘unskilled labor’ can actually be anything but.”
By no means is Ocasio-Cortez the first or the only former server in Congress — but she is using her considerable platform to highlight the profession and the industry in ways that few have ever been able to. She “is the crest of this wave of masses of formerly politically disaffected servers and tipped workers rising up and demanding that they be seen as the professionals that they are, that they get one fair wage, that there’s an end to sexual harassment and both race and gender discrimination,” said Jayaraman.
Walsh, whose political career began out of a desire to advocate for higher wages for tipped workers like herself, is another part of that righteous wave. The anger still carries her. “I struggle a lot with bitterness: How hard I had to work as a waitress to get the bare minimum of respect, versus being a representative and having all these opportunities open to you just by virtue of your title,” she said. But to the critics who disparage waitresses turned elected officials like herself, her response is simple: “We won. What else do you have to say at that point?”
The tide hasn’t finished turning yet. The subminimum wage has been eliminated in seven states, and Jayaraman says workers and advocates are pushing their state legislatures to eliminate the lower tipped wage in more places across the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates have publicly endorsed a $15 minimum wage. Among voters, polling suggests widespread support for the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024.
One hundred fifty years of ingrained attitudes about service workers won’t be changed overnight, but with economic gains a very real possibility, perhaps it’s simply a matter of time. Calling someone a “waitress” or a “bartender” won’t be an implied insult, or even a well-meaning condescension; those will just be words, used to describe the crucial work that millions of Americans perform every day, as professionals.