Restaurant Workers Launch Multi-City Campaign to Transform Low-Wage Industry

Servers and busers at the Detroit-area Andiamo chain complain of a raft of wage violations as well as racial and gender discrimination on the job. Their campaign is part of a nationwide push by the Restaurant Opportunities Center to raise wages and working conditions inside the expanding industry. Photo: ROC.

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing private employers in the country. But just as swinging doors often separate patrons from the kitchen, the working lives of 13.5 million restaurant workers—a largely non-union workforce—remain out of sight.

In four cities, cooks, dishwashers, servers, hosts, and busers are organizing workplace justice campaigns with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), bringing their aspirations to overhaul a low-wage, high-discrimination industry out onto the streets.

ROC got its start when workers at New York’s “Windows on the World” restaurant in the World Trade Center lost 73 of their co-workers—and their jobs—on 9/11. The worker advocacy group began organizing, training workers, and conducting research and policy work, and now has 3,200 members and its own restaurant.

Through coordinated legal and direct action campaigns, ROC-NY has notched several wins garnering millions in wage and hour claims, as well as legal settlements with restaurants that mimic collective bargaining agreements. ROC formed a national organization in 2008—ROC United—and chapters in seven cities formed soon after.

While ROC is not a union, its organizing work could be a path to unionization. UNITE HERE Local 100, New York’s food service local, has struggled to build density among the fragmented but growing ranks of restaurant workers. Only a small fraction of the city’s restaurant workers are Local 100 members. But the local was instrumental in helping set up ROC.

Union card or not, ROC members have found winning collective strategies capable of raising the bar.

HOW DO I LOOK IN THIS MESS?

“One of the things every restaurant cares about more than anything else is their image,” says Jose Oliva, ROC national policy coordinator. “It’s their most valuable asset.”

Workers in ROC build direct action campaigns with community support to go after bad actors in the industry. Workplace campaigns are live in Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, and Portland, Maine.

Workers at Andiamo Dearborn, an Italian restaurant with 11 other locations in the Detroit area, filed a federal lawsuit January 12 after months of weekly picket lines on the sidewalk outside. Seventy-five supporters from student, faith, and labor groups—including the head of the Detroit Metro AFL-CIO—converged in front of the restaurant as ROC announced it was pursuing claims of upwards of $125,000 for eight workers who allege a raft of wage violations, gender and national origin discrimination, and retaliation.

Servers and busers in the complaint, which includes one current employee (the others quit or were fired) said they weren’t paid the state minimum wage, even after tips. Others say the company illegally deducted wages for uniforms and equipment, and refused overtime pay after 70-hour work weeks.

Workers also complain of discrimination within the restaurant, claiming that Andiamo gives promotions to lesser qualified white and male employees. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the restaurant’s head chef routinely made disparaging remarks about “wetbacks” without facing discipline. One female worker alleges that management refused to punish a male employee after she complained of sexual harassment.

The week following one particularly raucous sidewalk protest, one worker-leader, Bertha Piña, was fired. ROC filed a retaliation complaint with the NLRB, and Piña, a mother of five, was reinstated days later—but got few hours.

When she returned to work, Piña said, Andiamo’s CEO pulled her aside for a tongue-lashing. “He wanted to know why we don’t care about his reputation,” she said. “I asked him why he doesn’t care about our lives.” Piña has been demoted to dishwasher, one day a week.

ROC-Michigan is keeping the pressure on during the lawsuit, scheduling weekly protests. ROC-Maine and six workers at Portland’s Front Room restaurant also filed suit in early 2010, claiming that what’s happened in Detroit is no anomaly.

PAYDAY DELAY

When paychecks from Chicago’s Mexican fine-dining tapas restaurant Ole Ole! began bouncing two months ago, workers showed up at the ROC office. “One server’s missing $20,000 over the course of three years,” said Veronica Avila, ROC-Chicago coordinator.

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The campaign took off when other kitchen staff complained of getting paid whenever the owner felt like it. When checks came through, Avila says, they’d be hundreds of dollars light. ROC says six employees of the restaurant’s predominantly Latino workforce are short $200,000 total.

Owner Regina Tavone, who has admitted to owing at least $80,000 to four workers, stalled repeatedly on ROC’s demands for a meeting, and the group picketed on January 6, promising not to go away.

In New Orleans, another crowd has joined the tourist mobs along the city’s bustling Bourbon Street. Five former employees have drawn support from ROC-NOLA in a lawsuit and public campaign against restaurateur Jobert Salem. Next to his bar, the Old Absinthe House, Salem owns two restaurants in one building—Tony Moran’s and Jean Lafitte Bistro.

Workers say management gives them two employee ID numbers, one for each restaurant. When they get close to overtime pay on one ID, their hours get logged on the other. ROC member Van Joseph says he was paid $100 for 60 hours’ work in Salem’s catering business.

Protests have continued despite Salem’s deployment of security from the bar to bat away cameras and intimidate outspoken workers. According to Darren Browder, ROC-NOLA co-coordinator, workers have been roughed up and tasered. One reports being assaulted after being fired and asking for his last paycheck. Fifteen out of 50 former employees at Tony Moran’s told ROC they were physically assaulted by the bar’s enforcers.

Following a large November protest, Browder says Moran’s management came to the table—but mostly to suss out what kind of evidence ROC had. The lawsuit and public campaign continue.

PUTTING NUMBERS ON IT

ROC backs up the claims of workers at individual restaurants with citywide studies. While the organization seeks to build relationships with restaurant owners that treat workers well, two major studies by ROC-NY show that most employers, unsurprisingly, take the low road in a low-wage industry.

In 2005, half of New York restaurant workers made less than $9 an hour, and 90 percent had no health coverage through their employers. Average salaries were $25,000 less than the average private sector job in 2000—and the gap has only grown.

ROC-NY’s 2009 study on hiring discrimination put the numbers behind a common conception that people of color are trapped in “back of the house” jobs. The study sent dozens of job applicants from a spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds into nearly 200 city restaurants, revealing that high-priced establishments offered jobs to white applicants twice as often, and chose them more frequently for high-visibility jobs like host and server.

Meanwhile, restaurant workers in New York made their own high road. Colors, ROC-NY’s union restaurant in Manhattan, gives each worker an equal share of ownership. A general manager and chef hire and fire, but are accountable to a board of directors elected by workers—who have a living wage, health care, and training programs through ROC. The idea is spreading. In Detroit, restaurant workers are moving on plans to open their own establishment inside an old, rarely used downtown club.

ROC United’s Oliva says the group’s multi-pronged strategy aims at raising standards across the growing service sector.

“Before people were unionized in the auto industry, it was dragging down the rest of manufacturing,” Oliva says. “Restaurants set the standards for the service industry. We’re trying to create a culture of organizing there, to make restaurant jobs stable jobs.”


Evan Rohar and Enku Ide contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #371, February 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.