NEWS FLASH: Restaurant hopping in Manhattan is not for those with shallow pockets. According to Zagat’s 2007 Restaurant Guide, Gotham is the costliest place to dine in America. The average bill, says the Guide, is $39.43 per person; the average tab, $128.79.
Meanwhile, as the well-heeled chow down on pan-seared fluke, slow-roasted pork or Madeira-braised oxtails, conditions for the 165,000 people employed in the five boroughs’ 15,000 eateries—dishwashers to waiters, 40 percent of them undocumented—are often heinous. Abuses, say members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), are rampant.
Indeed, a 2005 study conducted by ROC and more than 20 groups including the National Employment Law Project, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, uncovered what they call “pervasive inequality.”
Among their findings: the median wage for restaurant workers is $9.11 per hour; 44 percent live below the poverty line; 48 percent work more than eight hours a day; 73 percent lack health insurance; 84 percent have no paid sick leave; and 70 percent have no paid vacation.
ROC, a five-year-old workers’ center with nearly 1600 members, aims to change this.
Ayman H. [a pseudonym] got involved with ROC in 2002. “I decided I had to do something meaningful in my life,” he says. A waiter for 28 years, Ayman is outraged by the racial discrimination and unsafe conditions he has witnessed. “I have seen people without civility, chefs who throw dishes, supervisors who call workers bad, insulting names, kitchens with no safety nets. I’ve seen people slice their fingers and I’ve seen others get burned. People who are sick are told, ‘If you stay home today, you can stay home permanently,’ so they work when they’re ill.”
Although Ayman is currently employed in a midtown eatery that provides him with health insurance and paid sick and vacation time, he is active in ROC because he knows that he is an exception. “I want to give back a little bit of what I’ve enjoyed during my life,” he says. “I want to help restaurant workers understand that we have rights. It’s so important to teach people that no one can walk all over them and take their sweat and turn it into dollars.”
ROC’s one-room office, rented from Brooklyn College’s Tribeca satellite program, has the cluttered feel of a campaign headquarters. Pictures of Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Che, and Gandhi line the walls and a quote from Audre Lorde reminds both staff and visitors that their silence will not protect them. Picket signs lie in heaps on the floor: Fiorello Workers Deserve Fair Promotions; Shelly Fireman Is Not Above the Law; Please Don’t Patronize This Restaurant; Por Trabajo, Justicia y Vida.
Fekkak Mamdouh and Saru Jayaraman founded ROC in 2002. “I had been working at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center,” Mamdouh says. “After 9-11, Local 100 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union called me and Saru and said they wanted us to help the 13,000 restaurant workers who’d been displaced by 9-11 get jobs.”
At the time, Jayaraman, an attorney from Ft. Greene, was working in Hempstead at the nonprofit Workplace Project. “What started as a way to help people find jobs quickly turned into something else,” she says. “We learned that David Emil, the owner of Windows on the World, was opening a new restaurant, Noche, in Times Square. When former Windows’ employees approached him and asked for jobs, he told them they weren’t qualified.”
Jayaraman and Mamdouh saw this as old-fashioned union busting, since Windows’ workers had been members of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), Local 100. Together, they devised a strategy to bring media attention to Emil’s refusal to rehire his former employees and picketed Noche the night before it was scheduled to open. The next day, Jayaraman crows, Emil hired 35 previous staff members.
Although Noche is now closed, this 2002 victory boosted morale and showed Mamdouh and Jayaraman that winning was possible. Since then, ROC has won more than $300,000 for workers in a variety of venues, from a small deli in Bay Ridge to four-star eateries on the East Side. While each of their six major campaigns has been different, all have utilized a combination of lawsuits and demonstrations to garner media attention.
“Our goal is to force restaurant owners who are taking the low road to take the high road and do the right thing for their employees,” Jayaraman says. They are currently targeting the Fireman Hospitality Group—whose six restaurants took in $52 million in 2004, according to RE Business Online, a national newsletter about business trends—and famed French chef, Daniel Boulud. Thomson-Gale’s online business service, Goliath, estimates that Boulud’s restaurants earn $30 million a year.
“We believe if we can win benefits at these empires, it will have a ripple impact on the entire industry and get changes that will benefit all workers,” Jayaraman says.
ROC charges that Fireman and Boulud discriminate in how promotions are rewarded, sexually harass women workers, force workers to share tips with management, and ignore unsafe working conditions. But John Fireman, vice president of marketing and development for the Fireman Hospitality Group, calls ROC’s allegations “wild and outrageous.” All 1,200 employees, he said in an email, have health insurance, get six personal or sick days and six paid holidays each year, and are given up to three weeks paid vacation. “We pride ourselves on creating a wonderful and happy atmosphere for our employees,” he wrote.
He further believes ROC to be disingenuous, more interested in headline-grabbing than negotiations. A letter to Jayaraman stating his desire to settle the workers’ grievances, dated September 19, 2006, has, he says, gone unacknowledged.
And, he adds, the NY State Department of Labor (DOL) agrees that the Fireman Group has done nothing wrong on tip sharing. According to letters issued by DOL in May and September, “The maitre d’s assisted the wait staff in rendering service to the customers, which entitles them to receive tips. These employees do not have the power to hire and/or fire employees at the restaurant.”
Although the DOL concluded that this entitles them to a percentage of the waiter’s take, ROC organizers believe the decision is flat-out wrong. They are hoping that court-ordered mediation, set to begin soon, will resolve the conflict with Fireman; the campaign against Boulud is also ongoing. In addition, ROC is committed to expanding the Restaurant Industry Round Table, a group for owners that was designed to be a model of “high road” standards for employers.
ROC is also promoting their cooperatively-owned restaurant, Colors, which opened in January 2006. Fifty co-op members from 22 countries earn a minimum of $13.50 per hour, proving, say ROC members, that profitability is not incompatible with paying workers a living wage.
Still, in an industry in which barely 1 percent of workers are part of collective bargaining units, ROC has its work cut out. But herein lays the group’s strength, say Jayaraman and Mamdouh. “A lot of people have labeled us a union,” says Mamdouh, “but we’re not. It’s not that we’re anti-union. In the end, we hope every campaign we’re in, the union will come and take over, but unions have rules they must follow, regulations about things like membership check cards. You have to have a certain percentage of workers signed up in order to bargain if you’re a union. Since we’re not a union, we can go in on behalf of even one worker, negotiate, and win.”
“People are so scared,” Mamdouh adds. “It’s hard for us to organize them because they’re afraid they’ll be fired. In lots of places once you speak up or show that you understand your rights, you’re out. Or you’re harassed or given bad shifts.”
Still, he concludes, the simple fact that ROC exists gives people a sense of possibility. “Every day we’re here, and every campaign that gets people treated like human beings is a victory.”
ROC is located at 99 Hudson Street in Manhattan*; www.rocny.org. The group is open to all restaurant workers; dues of $5.00 per month entitle members to free ESL classes and other training. Lawyers are also available for consultations. Funding for the group comes from membership dues and foundation grants.
*ROC is now located at 275 7th Ave in Manhattan.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader