The complaints of the women who waited tables at The Keyhole restaurant in 1942 wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s worked as a server, then or now. They claimed their boss didn’t fairly compensate them for overtime; exaggerated the tips they received so he could pay a lower hourly rate and forced them to purchase expensive silk stockings as part of their uniform. But unlike thousands of other Charleston restaurant staffers over the years, The Keyhole crew walked out.
Alex Tumboli, co-owner with Nick Varclas of The Keyhole at 316 King St. (the current address of Lush Cosmetics), believed the waitresses went on strike because he berated four of them for drinking Cokes in the bathroom during service. Their picket signs said otherwise.
“Notice – Ten and a half hours a day, $3.00 a week salary at the Keyhole,” read one sign hoisted on the line.
Apparently buoyed by the wartime strength of labor and elevated position of women in a depopulated workforce, Dorothy Scott, Nellie Poole, Patricia Weis, Cleo Gardner and Irene Brown publicly demanded a living wage. (Interestingly, the Charleston Fire Department hired its first female employee and the bus system auditioned its first female driver during the same week as The Keyhole strike.) Their actions briefly resulted in the city’s first unionized restaurant.
Tumboli insisted that waitresses at The Keyhole received $7 a week, in addition to $4 per day in tips and three free meals. The waitresses countered that they daily received only two meals and no more than $1.24 in tips. If the waitresses’ calculations were correct, allowing for their weekly uniform expenses, they were earning about $143 in 2014 dollars.
The March 18 walkout was strongly supported by labor groups, leading some local businessmen to suspect unionizers had cajoled the women into striking. Tumboli hastily formed the Charleston Restaurant Owners Association to “combat the evils created by foreign elements to our good city,” saying his employees had fallen under the spell of “apparent racketeers.”
“If anybody wants to call us racketeers because we believe in paying waitresses more than $3 and $4 a week, I guess we are all racketeers,” John Irwin, president of the Charleston Labor Union, told The Evening Post, denying any foreknowledge of the strike. “If it is their intent to band together to keep the waitresses down, there are around 6,000 members of the AFL who will certainly participate in aid to the girls in the way of funds and moral support.”
James Key, international representative of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Alliance of the AFL added, “Charleston will be organized.”
Within a few days of the walkout, 45 waitresses across the city had signed a petition asking the authorities to protect them from union organizers. “We are all perfectly satisfied with our jobs and want to continue to work in peace,” Lillian Woods, an employee of Oyster Bay restaurant, said.
Undeterred by detractors, the AFL on March 24 signed a contract with Tumboli and Varclas. Although the parties presented slightly different interpretations of the settlement’s terms to the press, they issued a joint statement announcing, “the Keyhole restaurant is to be reopened tomorrow as Charleston’s first completely unionized establishment of this nature.” (Later, it was revealed the waitresses’ salaries were set on an ascending scale, reaching $12 after six weeks on the job.)
One week later, the waitresses were back on the picket line. According to Key, they’d been assigned to less desirable stations than non-union members, who were hired in violation of the contract.
Tumboli argued that he couldn’t rely on the union to supply waitresses because its local roster was limited to the five original picketers. If forced to close the restaurant for understaffing, he continued, he and Varclas couldn’t “do our patriotic part in contributing towards the successful prosecution of the war, inasmuch as we cater generally to the influx of defense workers.”
Key took the chance to hurl a slur back at The Keyhole’s owners.
“Food prices in Charleston are fully 25 percent higher than elsewhere in the South, yet wages are alarmingly low,” he said. “The union seeks to correct this evil, yet we find it impossible to deal with these apparent food racketeers simply because they are unable to honor their own signatures. ... We take the firm stand to do everything in our power to relieve the pitiful conditions now prevalent in Charleston among restaurant workers.”
The Evening Post predicted the picket would become a permanent fixture on King Street, since Tumboli and Key “declared that neither would make any initial moves to settle the strike.”
But the strike ended as suddenly as it started. On the afternoon of April 11, the picketers abandoned their posts. They told The Evening Post that they were following instructions from Key, who had abruptly left town. A reporter was unable to reach him for comment, so asked Tumboli and Varelas what happened.
“Possibly the sun was too hot for them,” they said.