ROCing the Restaurant Industry

Dania Rajendra Sep 6, 2011

MAKING A POINT: Omaira Cintron of ROC New York makes a point during a recent membership meeting at Colors restaurant. ROC now has chapters in eight cities and is fighting for workers’ rights throughout the restaurant industry. (Credit: Dave Sanders)If you lived in New York City on 9/11, you might remember a few brief moments of connection, when total strangers acted like friends — sharing food, asking, “Are you okay?”

It’s that sort of spirit that animates the work of the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United (ROC-United), a national organization originally built by former Windows on the World workers who lost 73 coworkers that day. ROC-United Co-Director Saru Jayaraman calls it “a legacy in their name.” ROC-United Co-Director Fekkak Mamdouh, a former Windows on the World worker, said that since 9/11 he has remained focused “on doing something positive.”

He and Jayaraman, with thousands of restaurant workers, have built their local workers center into a nascent national movement to transform restaurant work and, they hope, the U.S. service sector and even the entire economy, similar to what the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) did in the 1930s, when millions of industrial workers struck, fought and negotiated low-wage factory jobs into living-wage ones.

They’re the first to admit that it’s a tall order. “We’ve come a long way,” Jayaraman said. “And there’s a long way to go.”

The organization, founded in 2002, now counts nearly 8,000 members and $5 million in settlements from employers. The wins — and some losses — have honed ROC’s three-pronged organizing strategy: fight for workplace justice, feature and foster employers who do the right thing by their workers and promote policy.

It’s the first prong — the fight for workplace justice — that originally brought restaurant workers media attention. First, Windows on the World owner David Emil opened a new restaurant and offered jobs to a few Windows workers — but hired more when ROC threatened to picket the opening. Then, in 2005, workers filed discrimination claims and later a federal suit against high-profile restaurateur Daniel Boulud for discriminating against the Latino and South Asian staff. ROC won a settlement in 2007, including wage increases and government-monitored policy changes.

The second prong of featuring and fostering employers who do the right thing has led ROC to educate and organize restaurant owners as well as workers. As part of this work, ROC also provides training and education for restaurant workers in the skills they need in the kitchen or dining room and in the movement — classes include cooking, serving and bartending, and they all cover political education and leadership. In New York, and beginning in Detroit Sept. 12, ROC-run cooperative restaurants called Colors serve as a model and house the training programs. In New York, the training is run in collaboration with Kingsborough Community College. It’s through the classes and the campaigns against unfair employers that restaurant workers become leaders in the organization.

The last prong is research and policy advocacy. ROC has lobbied for a New York City law to guarantee paid sick days to all workers (City Council Speaker Christine Quinn quashed it) and a similar measure in Philadelphia (Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed it), as well as the WAGES Act, a federal bill to increase the de facto minimum wage of tipped workers, stuck at $2.13 an hour since 1991.

Employers are obligated by law to make up any difference between the $2.13 base wage, the tips and the national minimum of $7.25 — for example, on a slow shift — but ROC’s research and anecdotal evidence indicate that such obligations are rarely met. Six states, including Washington, have eliminated the tip credit, meaning tipped workers are paid the same minimum wage as any other worker and other states have raised the minimum wage — or the tipped wage — higher than the federal minimum. But in 22 states, tipped workers are paid a minimum cash wage of under $3 an hour.

Jayaraman notes that “waiters and waitresses experience three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce” and that of the five lowest-paying careers in the United States, food preparation and service account for three. ROC has documented widespread wrongs: rampant racial discrimination (on average, white workers earn $3.71 per hour more than workers of color), wage theft and injuries on the job, as well as the industry standard of zero paid sick days, which of course means people who should be home in bed (or at the doctor’s) come to work to prepare food — a situation Jayaraman sums up as “just disgusting.”

MENTORING: Colors chef Julio Anzures (left) shares some food prep tips during a busy lunchtime at the restaurant. (Credit: Dave Sanders)GOING NATIONAL
These are problems that extend beyond New York. In 2008, Jayaraman and Mamdouh formed Restaurant Opportunities Center-United to go beyond the five boroughs. There are now chapters in seven other locations in addition to New York: Miami; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; New Orleans; Chicago; and Michigan. Jayaraman says that the ROC-United headquarters in New York receives calls from people all over the country looking for help with problems on the job. This has spurred the organization to grow faster, planning even more chapters.

Expanding has “made us even more diverse and more inclusive as an organization,” Jayaraman said, noting that the demographics of New York’s workforce skew much more male and immigrant than do the rest of the country. “We definitely don’t think of ourselves as an immigrant organization any more,” she said, though they have not backed away from strong support for immigrants’ rights.

“ROC-United is a deeply multiracial organization, reflecting the full range of people working in the industry,” wrote ROC Board member Rinku Sen, who, with Mamdouh, co-authored the book The Accidental American about ROC’s early years. ROC focuses on high-end dining where the wait staff is overwhelmingly white and the cooks and dishwashers overwhelmingly immigrants of color. “In addition,” she writes “it also organizes black workers who are shut out of high-end restaurants altogether and largely relegated to fast food.”

Along with the coalitions they build inside of restaurants, ROC-United has established ties with the burgeoning food justice movement, a loose collection of farmers and other producers, consumers and concerned individuals who oppose the environmental and social destruction caused by corporate agriculture, pressing the movement to include worker conditions in the growing consciousness of “fair” or “good” food. ROC-United also participates in the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker organizations that works to bring justice to the people whose work makes possible the “farm to fork” trajectory, as well as the Excluded Worker Congress (see sidebar, below).


Of course, to get all this done, ROC needs to bring people together across the lines inside and outside of restaurants. “The restaurant industry itself is fraught with these divides. If we don’t bring people together across these divisions, employers will be able to divide and conquer,” notes ROC-Michigan executive director Minsu Longiaru.

“It’s the common struggle, common frustration, common goal that binds people together,” Woong Chang, a Washington, D.C. bartender and member of the ROC board of directors, added. That might be expected. What’s unexpected, he said, is the depth of the friendships they’re developing in the process.

Chang, who is 30 and tends bar at a hip Washington, D.C. hotel, majored in cognitive science at UC Berkeley. He has worked in the restaurant industry on the West Coast and the East Coast because, he said, it allows him to focus on his passions: food, travel and music. Chang says that in his eight years of experience, he’s seen what ROC documents in its research: “This industry has a severe level of segregation and discrimination.”

Chang explains that before joining ROC, he would feel powerless to act when he saw his friends’ or co-workers’ rights being violated in a restaurant. “I felt like a bad friend for not being able to do anything. ROC has become my vehicle.”

Though Chang has few complaints about his own job situation, he is eager to participate in improving the industry. To that end, he has shared his story as part of ROC’s research, chanted in protests and testified at a union-sponsored hearing, and now serves on ROC’s national board of directors as the front of the house representative.

Nikki Lewis, 29, was looking for a new job when she found the ad for ROC’s training classes on Craigslist. When she met Chang on the first day of class, their backgrounds had some overlap: Lewis holds a bachelor’s degree in English and has worked as a bartender, waitress and manager. But not everyone else in their class had such similar backgrounds.

For example, Mario Herriquez, who is 40, didn’t go to college. He immigrated to the Washington, D.C. area from El Salvador and began his career in the U.S. restaurant industry in 1988 as a dishwasher. “I worked from the bottom to the top, being a pizza man, grill cook, sauté cook, all that,” he said, before becoming the chef of an Italian restaurant in Maclean, VA. He said he has always had good relationships with the front of the house workers in his restaurant, so he wasn’t surprised to get along with the others in their class. But neither was he expecting them to become, as he said, “like a real family.”

“The class is 8 to 10 weeks, and every single week you’re talking about political things that are controversial — immigration, history and politics, gender relationships, race relations,” said Lewis, who has since joined the staff at ROC and continues to tend bar.

Instead of going their separate ways, the three classmates and the others in their class became good friends. They look out for each other — sharing leads on new jobs and new housing — and stay in regular contact. “I call them up after I get off work to see what they’re up to,” Chang says. Both Lewis and Herriquez used the word “family.”

“That’s the wonder of being a member of ROC,” Herriquez said. “It’s the opportunity to work to improve our industry, and, also, meeting people [and sharing] our stories and our difficulties, and our accomplishments. Everyone has accomplished something. We share our goals, like a real family.”

For more information, visit or call ROC-United at 212-777-8443  or ROC-NY at 212-343-1771.

TASTY: Colors waiter Lamount Morris serves lunch. Colors employees earn an average of $11 an hour plus tips and have a voice in how the restaurant is managed. (Credit: Dave Sanders)  Excluded Workers Get Organized

Though the political landscape in the decade since 9/11 has been bleak, one bright spot has been the worker organizing now included under the new umbrella term “excluded worker.”

The Excluded Worker Congress (EWC), formed at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, is a national network of workers who are excluded by law or practice from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that regulates workers’ right to bargain collectively with their employers.

Workers may find themselves in such a position due to a variety of circumstances — being undocumented, formerly incarcerated, or a recipient of workfare; by profession (including farm workers and taxi workers); by geographic location (22 of the United States are “right to work”); or by finding themselves left behind by the intensification of U.S. class stratification.

The organizations they’ve formed to represent themselves and improve their jobs have become the constituent members of the EWC. The roster is a who’s-who of innovative organizing institutions, many of which started in New York: the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and the Domestic Workers Alliance, as well as the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), guest workers, plus some AFL-CIO and Change to Win union locals.

These groups formed the EWC to share information, strategy and “capacity” under a human rights framework, that is, the idea that rights on the job are human rights regardless of the protection, or lack thereof, under state and local laws.

Though the EWC’s initial goals seem modest and federal-policy focused — raising the minimum wage and passing federal legislation that would protect undocumented workers organizing to improve work conditions — the EWC is also working to support the campaigns of its constituent members, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s recent success winning a convention recognizing the rights of domestic workers worldwide, including the right to bargain collectively, at the United Nation’s International Labour Organization in June.

Several EWC member groups have signed cooperation agreements with the AFL-CIO that will facilitate working together around issues of organizing, winning rights for excluded workers and building long-term relationships.

Such agreements indicate “a formal recognition of a shared agenda,” wrote labor expert Nik Theodore, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in a report released last year on the partnership between NDLON and the AFL-CIO. And as such, he noted, “it is difficult to overestimate the significance.”

— Dania Rajendra

For more information, see

Taste of Freedom

Colors was founded in 2006 by ROC members who previously worked at Windows on the World, a high-end restaurant located in the World Trade Center that was destroyed on 9/11. Always an anomaly in the super-competitive Manhattan restaurant market with its emphasis on worker self-management and paying a living wage, Colors struggled to find its niche. It appears to have done so in the past year as the restaurant has shifted its emphasis to serving local social justice activists.

“That we can celebrate life and feed the movement is wonderful,” says Juan Carlos Ruiz, the national coordinator for Colors. “We want to be an organizing center not just for ROC but for the greater social justice movement in New York.”

Colors will host  ROC’s 9/11 tenth anniversary gala commemoration on Sept. 8. It will also host a number of public forums this fall featuring groups that advocate
immigrant and worker rights. A second Colors is slated to open in Detroit on Sept. 12.

Located just south of Astor Place at 417 Lafayette St., Colors offers an eclectic global cuisine with most of its ingredients locally sourced. According to Ruiz, its 20 workers earn an average wage of $11 an hour plus tips, have basic healthcare coverage and receive three to six sick days per year.

— John Tarleton

For more information, visit or call 212-777-8443.

Beyond 9/11

September 11 and its aftermath sparked the formation of ROC as well as a number of other new organizations that could respond to everything from attacks on civil liberties and immigrant communities to preemptive war.

3 West 29th St.
(646) 290-5551 •
Founded in September 2002, Families for Freedom (FFF) emerged from the grassroots opposition to the detention of members of New York’s South Asian community. Since then FFF has been fighting for detainee rights through outreach, education campaigns and support groups. FFF assists around 600 to 700 individuals a year and is the only NYC group organizing on behalf of immigrants facing deportation because they have criminal records. “We do [this work] because we know that the immigration laws of 1996 went too far in criminalizing individuals,” says organizer Betsy Dewitt.

292 Madison Ave.
(212) 982-9699 •
Founded in 2004 at the convention of Veterans For Peace and directly inspired by the 1970s-era Vietnam Veterans Against the War, IVAW calls for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and for reparations to be paid to the people of those countries. The group is currently leading a campaign to stop the deployment of soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder to Iraq or Afghanistan.

219 W. 40th St.
(646) 758-7773 •
Originally founded as an online publication presenting voices from the Muslim community, more than 480 issues later Voices That Must Be Heard has become a tremendously diverse media outlet that highlights media coverage each week from ethnic and community newspapers across New York City — including The Indypendent. Communications Manager Jehangir Khattak says the organization “has proved to be an excellent platform for minority communities to spread their perspective and [promote] their good work.” Voices That Must Be Heard recently became part of the CUNY Journalism School and will begin publishing under a different name soon.

15 Rutherford Pl.
(212) 598-0970 •
Peaceful Tomorrows was founded by family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks who united to promote non-violence, just U.S. foreign policies and dialogue as an alternative to war. Members frequently share their stories as a way to educate the public about 9/11 and its aftermath.

— Zayd Sifri

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