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Working In These Times

Friday, Jul 17, 2009, 2:01 pm

Labor Organization Tries to Stir up Restaurant Worker Solidarity

BY Kari Lydersen

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Jose Oliva is lost in thought as he holds the drink menu to his face and peeks over it to scan the plush, upscale new restaurant in Chicago. The waitstaff probably assumes he is contemplating which designer martini to sample.

In reality, he is canvassing the joint for tell-tale signs that this would be a good target for the Restaurant Opportunity Center, or ROC, a labor organization seeking to represent workers in the nation’s largest and perhaps most-exploited sector.

The “front of the house” staff—waiters, waitresses, hosts and bartenders—are mostly white. The “back of the house” staff—busboys, dishwashers and cooks—are largely Latino or otherwise people of color. This is typical of most restaurants, especially fine-dining establishments, where 90 percent of servers are white men catering to guests who seek the “butler experience.”

Oliva tries to gauge the morale of the restaurant’s workers. Do they seem relaxed and cheerful interacting with guests? Do they joke with regulars?

Fine-dining establishments with meals priced at $40 and up represent the bulk of the restaurant industry’s profit—a profit estimated to reach half a trillion dollars this year. During the economic crisis, the restaurant industry is one of the only sectors actually growing.

The industry represents 13.5 million workers, according to ROC, and aside from farmworkers, its wages and working conditions are the worst in the country. Less than one percent of restaurant staff are unionized, and fewer than one in 10 have health insurance or paid sick days.

ROC seeks to change this through a three-pronged strategy that includes targeting the worst employers, lauding and working with the best employers, and changing federal law to protect all restaurant workers. In terms of individual workplaces, ROC focuses only on fine-dining establishments, with the idea that these set the standard for the whole industry, and gains in workers’ rights and wages will trickle down to casual dining (like Applebees or Denny’s) and “quick serve” (fast-food) establishments.

The laws and policy changes they advocate would help everyone in the industry. These include passing the Healthy Families Act, mandating paid sick days, and restoring a memorandum of understanding that prevents Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from intervening in workplaces involved in labor disputes.

One of ROC’s key strategies is uniting the front and back of the house staff in a fight for better wages and conditions at high-end restaurants, which can be fiercely competitive and often demand long hours and irregular, constantly changing shifts from all their employees (though front-of-the-house staff are typically much better paid).

ROC was founded by an astoundingly diverse group of workers from Windows on the World, the restaurant in the World Trade Center, after the 9-11 attacks. Workers were drawn together by the trauma and the frantic struggle to account for their colleagues after the attacks—where a number of the restaurant’s staff were killed.

In the wake of the attacks, the bad economy and extreme prejudice against Middle Eastern and other immigrants made it very difficult for many of them to find jobs. Immigrants who previously had believed in the American Dream found themselves cruelly ostracized just because of their ethnicity, as ROC organizer Fekkak Mamdouh and author Rinku Sen describe in their book The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization.

Hence ROC was founded out of necessity, desperation and a fighting spirit. The organization now has branches in New York, Chicago, Miami, Washington DC, New Orleans, Detroit, Portland, Maine and, soon, Los Angeles. In Detroit, it rivals the auto industry as the major employer, with about 100,000 workers.

“Just like the auto industry once had the power to create labor standards and a middle class, now the restaurant industry has that power,” Olivo said.

In Chicago, organizers are deciding on the target for their first workplace campaign—hence Oliva’s scouting mission. Oliva notes that ROC is specifically not a union—rather it is a workers’ organization free from the bureaucratic mandates and institutional politics that can fetter unions.

ROC is the only group that has really taken the best strategies and most effective tactics from the union side and combined them with the best tactics from the workers’ side,” he said. “Our belief is pretty straightforward and simple. This is the nation’s largest sector. Whatever changes we get in wages and working conditions will have ramifications in the rest of the everyone else.”

Chicagoans can support ROC Chicago at a benefit Saturday, July 18, at Cary’s Bar, 2251 W. Devon St., at 8 p.m. There is no cover charge.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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