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In Pandemic-Hit Service Industry, Union Staff at Ellen’s Stardust Diner Show a Way Forward

Issue 255.5

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn Apr 23

As the pandemic spread and New York City became the global epicenter of the coronavirus, the restaurant industry was jolted with shutdowns, closures, furloughs and mass layoffs. Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a destination for tourists who want to experience the musical allure of Broadway while eating classic diner food served by singing waiters, was not immune. On March 17, the diner closed its doors and all of Ellen’s 200-plus employees were furloughed.

At other restaurants and under different circumstances, the workers might have been left to fend for themselves. But at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, things are different. 

Donate to the Stardusters’ Relief Fund.

In 2016, workers came together and formed a union with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Stardust Family United. Their organizing model: militant, worker-led, solidarity unionism. In short, solidarity unionism is when workers themselves take collective direct action and build power from the bottom up, rather than without relying on labor bureaucrats, attorneys or grievance procedures. The Stardusters, as they call themselves, live by the old Wobbly slogan, “We are all leaders.” 

Zach Snyder — who has worked just about everywhere in the restaurant industry, “from McDonald’s to Burger King, to high-end catering and fine dining” — joined the union shortly after he started working at Ellen’s. 

“What set me on fire was that there was one day where I was supposed to have a tip-out from training because I helped so much with a party there,” he recalls. “But when I went to get the money, it wasn’t there. Coworkers said, ‘We put it in an envelope and gave it to management like we normally do.’” He heard of events similar to this occurring previously. Now, it was happening to him. “I immediately said, ‘I can’t let this happen again,’ and I wanted to join the union.”

Snyder became deeply involved with the IWW: attending meetings, serving as an officer, organizing singing pickets, staging collective protests in the diner and participating in sit-ins in an effort to improve working conditions.

“The union has our backs,” Snyder says.

When he and his colleagues approached their bosses about setting up a relief fund to aid workers at the iconic diner most in need, he says management declined and insisted that “the diner can’t get involved.”

After a Zoom meeting, the Stardusters decided to form an employee relief fund on their own, voting initially to donate $2,000 of their dues money to it. They struck up a committee to administer the fund and established a GoFundMe page to collect donations. 

While work was already precarious for many workers at Ellen’s before the spread of COVID-19, that precarity has been amplified by the pandemic, coupled with an economy teetering on the edge. While some of the workers are currently receiving unemployment, many have been unable to claim the benefit or do not qualify for the assistance to begin with. 

“We will not be able to pay [rent] for the month of May,” says a member of Ellen’s kitchen staff, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We do not know what to do. The consulate of our country is not working, our situation is really sad and discouraging. We hope, we hope, and we ask God that [relief comes] soon. But in these difficult times, those of us who are not eligible to obtain any support from the government, we can only appeal to the good heart of the people who can lend us a hand.”

And that is precisely what the Wobblies in Stardust Family United are doing, regardless of whether Ellen’s staff are members of the union or not. Their plan is to raise $25,000.

The Stardusters hope the fact that the funds will be available even for those who are not in the union might lead some of their fellow workers to see that it is their coworkers and their union who is there for them. Some may, in turn, join the IWW.

Meanwhile, participation in union meetings has gone up and the Wobblies are preparing for a very uncertain future but are still poised for action as the need arises. 

“Right now, our mentality with the union and the restaurant is that no news is good news,” says Snyder, though he and his fellow Stardusters worry that the pandemic may cause longer furloughs and have a serious effect on the availability of work. “We are hopeful that after the pandemic subsides that we can return to work as quickly, and safely, as possible with all staff in place. We will continue to carry out actions to help each of our coworkers in need as conditions evolve.”

Despite the difficulties of living under a pandemic, the union reports that camaraderie is high within its ranks. However, recent history looms large over management at Ellen’s so the bosses may hesitate to offer employment to all workers once social-distancing restrictions are lifted in full. When the company launched a union-busting campaign in 2016, firing 31 workers in the process, the singing waiters fought back with a vengeance. New hires, Snyder included, joined the IWW, swelling the ranks of the union. After a prolonged campaign that combined singing pickets and protests inside the diner along with legal action, the let-go staff were reinstated and together received nearly $500,000 in back pay

So far the Stardusters Relief Fund has raised near $15,000.

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn is an IWW member and organizer in Utica, NY. His work has appeared in the Industrial Worker, Works in Progress, Monthly Review and Le Monde Diplomatique. 

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