This dissertation examines the rich social landscapes within upscale restaurants in Los Angeles, common space to both affluent guests and low-skilled immigrant laborers. These settings embody a number of contemporary trends in postindustrial societies today, such as growing inequality, sustained international migration, urban consumption, and service work. Drawing on five years of ethnographic study within three upscale restaurants in Los Angeles, this dissertation asks: how is social inequality both reproduced and contested within these service workplaces? How are boundaries reinforced not only between workers, customers, and managers, but also between coworkers who share few social similarities? Finally, how is labor coordinated across race, class, gender, and immigration status differences, and to what extent might this yield unexpected opportunities for some workers but disadvantages for others?
This dissertation details how white, class-privileged workers are able to attain more lucrative customer-facing service jobs in upscale restaurants, whereas immigrant Latino workers remain stuck in low-wage, “back of the house” jobs. I argue that these worker inequalities are not only the result of managerial practices (such as discriminatory hiring) that shape the workplace – as traditional labor process theory might suggest – but also by the social and cultural boundaries enacted by various shop floor actors (chapters two and three). As a result, service workplaces become divided into two separate and unequal worlds of work all but closed against one another.
Yet, despite internal divides, upscale restaurants must still find a way to produce upscale service for paying customers. Chapter six describes how some workers are able to help bridge workplace divides and enable a smoother flow of food service on the shop floor. I show how second-generation Latinos, armed with dual socio-cultural attributes and network ties, are able to leverage their “in-betweenness” in this work setting to access higher job rungs in the organization – positions virtually unavailable to their low-skilled immigrant coworkers. The concluding chapter of this dissertation details how this research advances the study of service work, job skills, immigrant labor, and social inequality.