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UAW President Calls Boycott on Behalf of Detroit Restaurant Workers

Kari Lydersen

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Workers fired from the Andiamo restaurant chain in the Detroit area took their campaign to a new level last week, with United Auto Workers (UAW) president Bob King joining them in calling for a boycott of the restaurant’s 11 locations in southeast Michigan.

The UAW has 150,000 members in the area, and is also calling on companies with which it has contracts – including Ford Motor Co. — and elected officials to boycott the chain. On Sept. 16 the UAW, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO and interfaith leaders joined ROC-Michigan and workers in trying to deliver a letter to management of Andiamo’s Dearborn location, where workers were fired for organizing with ROC-Michigan, an affiliate of the national Restaurant Opportunity Center.

A manager refused to take the letter, saying the group could send its complaints by mail. An Andiamo manager reportedly also told interfaith and worker leaders she would be out shortly to talk with them; she never showed. The next day, the boycott was called and a diverse crowd of workers and supporters marched carrying signs saying Hungry for Justice.” (See video above).

UAW Region 1A director Rory Gamble told the crowd:

You have to put your feet to the pavement to tell them you’re committed to bring about positive change. And that’s what this is all about positive change. We want fair treatment and decent wages, decent standard of living, for these employees. That’s the American way, right?

In Motor City itself, the top-level UAW support is a strong statement – and especially significant given the UAW is supporting workers organizing with the Restaurant Opportunity Center, which is not a traditional union. King took office in June, and has been committed to an ambitious new agenda that calls for broad organizing and social justice work,” as a ROC-Michigan press release describes it.

Our power is caring about our sisters and brothers and caring about justice for all,” said King at the rally.

A letter to UAW Region 1A members from the local leadership invokes legendary UAW organizer Walter Reuther and states:

Workers at Andiamo Restaurant in Dearborn have been organizing for fair and just treatment on the job, claiming minimum wage, overtime, discrimination, retaliation and other basic violations of their rights. We are leaders of organizations that represent many of Andiamo restaurants’ past, present, and future customers. The recent finding by the National Labor Relations Board that Andiamo management engaged in significant violations of the National Labor Relations Act makes continuing our patronage impossible.

The boycott comes in the wake of a summer National Labor Relations Board ruling finding the workers were indeed illegally fired in retaliation for organizing with ROC-Michigan. ROC-Michigan filed a lawsuit charging $125,000 in wages was withheld from workers, who also suffered discrimination, sexual harassment and other problems. The company settled the NLRB case by paying one worker $30 in back wages and posting a list of 15 things management will not do in the future. Workers say that’s not enough.

They have been holding weekly protests for months, including a large protest during the U.S. Social Forum in June. Soon after, Andiamo management began talking with workers and organizers, but no agreement was reached. (Read my previous coverage here.)

Andiamo owner Joe Vicari has told reporters the company did not withhold tips or wages from workers and denies charges of discrimination or harassment. The company’s website refers to it as the first family of Italian dining” and says of Vicari:

Joe loves the business and can always be found visiting tables and checking the kitchens in all of the restaurants. Joe says the key to his success is having good sound principles in place, treating people fairly so employees stay with him a long time and giving or selling a percentage of each restaurant to his managers.

Metro Detroit AFL-CIO president Sandra Williams said the city’s labor community are in the Andiamo struggle for the long haul.

We’ve been out here, we’ve been with ROC and we will be with ROC until the end. And we know this is going to end favorably. They will have no peace if there is no justice.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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