In December 1993 Elaine Gonzales, Brian Gibson, and another server at Tucci Milan waited on a large private party. At the end of the evening, Gonzales overheard a woman complimenting the wait staff. The woman said she was leaving a big tip–$900–about 26 percent of the bill. Gibson and Gonzales say the restaurant’s floor manager took responsibility for doling out the money to servers, food runners, bus people, and bartenders–an unusual move because servers usually handle that task. The next day, when the servers showed up to collect their portion of the tip, they each received only $100 for their trouble. According to the servers, they were given another $45 each after complaining to a manager, who told them that the restaurant had used some of the money for bread, flowers, and cookies.

“When we questioned it, the general manager of the restaurant pulled us into his office and told us that we were greedy and that if we didn’t like the way that this was done we should find another job,” says Gonzales, who had been waiting tables at the restaurant for four years. Instead, Gibson followed the “open door” policy for registering job grievances at Lettuce Entertain You restaurants. Over a period of eight months, he took his complaints all the way up the corporate ladder to Lettuce president Rich Melman–but Gibson says he never got a satisfactory explanation for the missing money. “That happened in the past,” explains Lettuce spokesperson Sue Salzman. “I have no comment.”

This was one of many incidents that led Gonzales, Gibson, and seven coworkers to initiate a union drive at the restaurant, with the help of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local No. 1. Lettuce Entertain You responded by hiring the law firm Sonnenschein, Nath, and Rosenthal, and the lines were drawn. In the months that followed, the workers say, employees were threatened and security personnel staked out the restaurant. Gibson believes he was suspended and ultimately fired for his role in the union drive. Since then, the National Labor Relations Board has investigated Lettuce Entertain You for unfair labor practices (the case is still pending). But employees voted against the union on January 13, 1995.

In the aftermath of the failed union drive, the eight remaining organizers left Tucci Milan. Recently, Gonzales, Gibson, and three other organizers formed the Chicago Area Restaurant Employees Education Network (CAREEN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to labor issues affecting restaurant workers.

“We want to tap into the creativity that exists in the restaurant workforce,” says Gibson, who has also worked in film. The group plans to produce a documentary about the Tucci Milan ordeal and to publish a regular newsletter called Anita’s Cot Party (named after the woman who left the generous tip). Their current project, “A Head of Lettuce,” is a mixed-media installation about the union drive and the case before the NLRB.

Gonzales, who is a photographer when she isn’t waiting tables, organized the exhibit, which is made up of enlarged public documents that she says will tell the story of the case. The installation includes excerpts from managers’ logs that were mailed anonymously to a handful of employees. “Elaine can get bitchy,” says one; “Scott has the personality of a piece of wood,” says another; and “Jill–wonderfully delicious hostess with the mostess,” says a third.

“During the union drive we really tried to deal with things that were in black and white,” says Gonzales. “Now they are going to be all over the walls. And people can talk about them and decide what they want to believe.”

The installation will be on display Sunday from 7 to 11 PM at a benefit for CAREEN at RX Gallery, 1464 N. Milwaukee. A requested $10 donation will go toward the publication of the first issue of Anita’s Cot Party. Call 312-409-4627.

–Mike Sula

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Elaine Gonzales and Brian Gibson by Nathan Mandell.