Table for 200,000: Unionizing New York's food workers.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:27

    And there's the simple message hanging opposite the 28-year-old attorney's office door: "Capitalism is not healthy for children and other living things." The decorations hang in a suite she shares with the Graduate Center for Worker Education, a CUNY program that allows workers from various labor unions to earn a master's degree at night school.

    But Saru Jayaraman has a more radical project in her sights than her CUNY suite-mates. Her goal is nothing short of a revolution for one of New York City's largest industries: food service. Along with partner Fekkak Mamdouh, a former waiter at the World Trade Center restaurant Windows on the World, Jayaraman founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-NY) in April 2002, an organization charged with finding work for the approximately 13,000 restaurant workers who lost jobs as a result of the September 11 attacks. This effort has since evolved into the more ambitious (and less reported) goal of organizing the 99 percent of the industry that's non-union.

    ROC-NY represents the relatively new phenomenon of the "independent nonprofit," a group that can organize and assist in lawsuits on behalf of non-union restaurant employees. The lion's share of the ROC-NY's $500,000 budget comes from foundations like Nathan Cummings, the September 11th Fund, New York and Robert Wood Johnson, as well as donations from private individuals and $5 monthly membership fees. The group also enjoys a close but non-financial relationship with the 5000-member Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 100 union, the only of its kind in the city. Prior to starting up ROC-NY, co-founder Mamdouh was an organizer for the Immigrant Workers Assistance Alliance, an operation set up to help displaced workers, as well as the families of his former co-workers who died at Windows on the World. The union also provided logistical support for a comprehensive survey ROC-NY conducted on the restaurant industry.

    From an organizer's standpoint, the New York restaurant union numbers are disheartening. Around one percent of New York's 150,000 restaurant employees belong to Local 100. Other estimates put the total number of restaurant employees at 225,000, thus lowering the percentage of unionized employees even further. The situation is exacerbated by the sector's high turnover rate as well as what Jayaraman sees as the union's own limited objectives.

    "Local 100 is focused on fancy tablecloth restaurants, and they will go after people they think are strategic," Jayaraman explains. "We are organizing restaurants that they are not going to organize. And if an individual restaurant worker from Socrates Diner wants to go somewhere, where do they go? They can come here."

    When asked why restaurants should unionize, a simple statistic stands out: Dishwashers in Local 100 restaurants make $6 an hour, while members of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union Local 6, which has organized roughly 85 percent of New York's hotel industry, make $17 an hour.

    Not surprisingly, industry advocates say unionizing food workers is unnecessary. Where else can people with little experience come in as dishwashers and work their way up to management, or even ownership positions? Jayaraman has little faith in that myth and speaks instead of $100 lobster and steak dinner scraps being devoured by immigrants who work for less than minimum wage without overtime or lunch breaks.

    These immigrants are the invisible motors that run what's known in industry jargon as the "back of the house." They dump out the scalding, stinking vats of grease, clean the squid and toss out the rotten meat. Anyone who's worked in the business knows that behind the debonair men and pretty women of most dining rooms, there's a hard-working crew of Central Americans back in the kitchen. Sometimes they're documented; sometimes they're not.

    For cost-cutting owners and undocumented immigrants with little in the way of English skills or job experience, the worker/restaurant owner relationship is a marriage of convenience. But for most of the 30 percent of the restaurant workforce that ROC-NY estimates is undocumented, their poverty wages are not enough. This is why undocumented workers are given the right to minimum wage and time-and-a-half overtime under federal labor laws.

    Still, industry spokesmen argue that if you raise these wages, they won't be able to cover costs.

    "Restaurants across the country are fortunate if they can make five to six percent net before taxes," says Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the Greater New York chapters of the New York State Restaurant Association. "City and state actually make more money than the restaurants do because they get eight and five-eighths percent sales tax whether the restaurant is successful or not? Just because a restaurant is big and does a lot of business doesn't mean they make a fortune."

    Jayaraman cuts the numbers a little differently.

    "Typically in New York City the average profit margin is close to 10 percent," she says. "So 10 percent of everything that goes in, goes to the owner directly, which means very little is left for the workers." According to ROC-NY's estimates, restaurant profits and jobs have grown by 250 percent over the last 20 years, while workers' wages stagnated below a median of $20,000 a year.


    The ROC-NY office is adorned with reproductions of checks. They're larger than normal checks, but smaller than the kind you see on Jerry Lewis telethons. There's one for $50,000, collected by five undocumented Mexicans who settled with Bay Ridge Greengrocer Giant Farm; there's a $45,000 prize for six Mexican employees of the Park Avenue Country Club (although owner Stephen Schmeelk has yet to pay the amount); there's an $1100 agreement reached at Pangaea bar on behalf of an undocumented Mexican worker. The total comes to almost $100,000 in settlements.

    Jayaraman says the group defended these workers regardless of their citizenship status. In fact, she never even asked them.

    "Why would we? There's no reason to? Even if they were undocumented, they [the BICE, formerly the INS] would be barred by their own operating regulations from interfering in any way, shape or form."

    According to Department of Labor Assistant regional administrator Bruce Sullivan, it's illegal for employers to hire undocumented immigrants. They are, however, obligated to pay all employees minimum wage and follow federal overtime and labor laws, regardless of immigration status.

    ROC-NY's most publicized fight pitted former Windows on the World employees against their former owner David Emil, who after 9/11 opened the Latin American midtown restaurant Noche. Windows employed about 450 employees, 73 of whom died in the attacks. Some 300 others were left looking for work. Unfortunately, Emil, who was hiring fewer than 100 new workers, said he just didn't have the capacity to take them all?and ROC-NY began protesting outside the restaurant. The activists accused Emil of trying to keep union members away from his new restaurant. Not so, Emil says. The situation finally cooled when Emil offered jobs to 55 former Windows employees?31 of them members of Local 100. Today he wants to put the incident behind him and continue to work with the labor union. "I don't harbor any ill feeling," he says.

    ROC-NY's next battle may take place in a Manhattan federal courtroom, where 16 ROC-NY members filed suit on Nov. 7 against an industry giant, Alan Stillman's Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, Inc., which includes 16 of the signature steakhouses in cities across the country, as well as seven high-end restaurants in New York. Smith & Wollensky, which went public in 2001, is today a multi-million-dollar company.

    The workers allege Stillman and several other members of the management team at Cité (part of Stillman's restaurant group) failed to compensate them for hours worked, including overtime. According to the complaint filed by attorneys affiliated with the City University of New York School of Law, the employees rarely received paid or unpaid breaks, paid sick days or paid vacations. Jayaraman and Mamdouh estimate the unspecified damages to be somewhere in the ballpark of $300,000. The restaurant, the plaintiffs allege, "withheld pay by intentionally misrepresenting the number of hours worked on each Plaintiff's paychecks through July, 2003."

    Take Josue Saul Guevara. According to court documents, Guevara worked 24 or 32 hours but was compensated for only 18 or 25 or 26 hours, respectively. Other employees who noticed discrepancies in their hours complained and were ignored. That changed in the spring of 2003, when several of them went to the U.S. Department of Labor's Brooklyn offices to complain about the mistreatment. Department agents visited Cité on June 3, when executive chef David Amorelli was alleged to have "ordered the employees to inform the DOL agents that the Defendants treat the back of the house employees well, pay them properly, and provide them with food and with meal breaks."

    After the DOL visit, manager Jimmy Hart is alleged to have ordered line cook Floriberto Hernandez to tell the rest of the back of the house employees that they'd be seeing a pay cut. About a month after the Department of Labor visit, "most of the Plaintiffs noticed two things: a) that their regular rates had been reduced by approximately 15 percent and b) in contrast to the past, they were generally being paid for the hours actually worked, but at this reduced regular rate or retaliatory rate."

    Cité owner Alan Stillman did not respond to email or phone inquiries from the New York Press, and a manager at Cité declined to comment for this story. Amorelli could not be reached by press time. Department of Labor Deputy Regional Administrator Bruce Sullivan said the Department of Labor was investigating the matter.

    For Floriberto Hernandez, one of the employees that has filed the suit against his employer, the working environment has been tense. "They're so quiet with me," he says. "Especially the chef."

    "We're just hoping that things get better," says Guevara, who cleans the kitchen at night. "At least they pay us what they owe us. Pay us what's right."

    Jayaraman and Mamdouh say they hope this latest legal action will provoke change in all of Stillman's restaurants.

    "If you looked at Zagat (Survey) 10 years ago, the most visited and most popular restaurants were all independently owned corporations," says Jaramayan. "If you look at Zagat today they're all part of these conglomerates. What we're trying to do is go after these mini-empires and clean them up. Because if we can show the restaurant industry that these powerful mini-emperors have to clean up their act, then so do [the even bigger fish]."

    For weeks ROC-NY had been trying to coax the owner into negotiation, staging protests in front of the upscale Midtown eatery. In October, workers paraded around a 20-by-six-foot fenced-off area shouting at people coming in and out of the restaurant. Mamdouh was especially vocal. "The steak was good?" he screamed in a thick, Moroccan accent.

    A week later, on Halloween night, demonstrators painted their faces as skulls, in Dia De Los Muertos tradition, and continued the chants. "Pay your workers! Pay your workers!" Inside, the white bartenders, with their white shirts and ties, seemed unfazed, serving vodka and gin to a group of businessmen. One offered a sardonic parting to his friends at the bar as he took a last swig: "Power to the people."

    As ROC-NY took to the streets in midtown, members of Local 100 were handing out leaflets at various restaurants around town, threatening their own strike. Though the two groups support one another's demonstrations, Jayaraman says the timing was incidental. The union's contracts expired at 25 restaurants on Oct. 31, and so far, according to media accounts, Local 100 has reached settlements with 12 of them.


    Alongside its organizational efforts and lawsuits, ROC-NY is also busy trying to build a revolutionary model for other New York restaurants. Using the co-op structure familiar in grocery stores and housing, ROC-NY plans to open the city's first worker-owned restaurant. With financial backing from investors, including a cooperative restaurant in Italy, the group hopes to open its restaurant in Tribeca by next summer. "It's going to be an American restaurant, very sort of high level, probably higher quality than Windows on the World," says Jayaraman.

    The restaurant's menu will include a $23 lamb shank and lemon confit with couscous, assorted creme brulees for $8, as well as a regional menu that will change each month, offering items such as an African seafood stew or Southeast Asian pho with rice noodles and ginger, star anise broth and bean sprouts. The food represents the ethnic diversity of the restaurant's ownership, expected to include 50 workers from more than 20 countries.

    Each employee will have equal ownership stake in the restaurant. "We'll have chefs but the difference will be that the chef will act as a coach and not a dictator," says Jayaraman. "Our chef has to be somebody that's equal with the people."

    One problem is expected: tips. The new restaurant will distribute tips according to the model of Ohio's Casa Nueva, perhaps the most successful of a handful of cooperative restaurants in the U.S. There workers pool tips nightly and add them to the restaurant's profits. Jayaraman admits this will be a "hard sell" for former Windows on the World servers accustomed to earning $80,000 a year.

    "A lot of these workers are very used to hierarchy because that's all they know," she says. "The $80,000 waiters started as $6 an hour dishwashers. They're immigrants. That's what they've known here in the U.S. We've got to show them a different way."