Windows of the World Workers Stay United
by Dania Rajendra for the Brooklyn Rail

On Sunday, June 26, dozens of restaurant workers in tall paper toques and flimsy plastic aprons charged into the Taste of Chicago. Despite their get up and a smattering of signs, they didn’t really garner attention until they broke into an original choreographed dance, singing their own words to the Black Eyed Peas version of “The Time of My Life”: “We’re serving the meals of our lives / And we never worked so hard before / And we swear, this is true / And we owe it all to food…We’re! Tired! Of! Making! Low Wages! We’re telling you.” (Of course it’s on YouTube.)

Members and staff of the Restaurant Opportunities Center sung, spun, and shimmied in the hot Chicago sunshine—but the Federal minimum wage for tipped workers hasn’t moved since 1991. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, restaurant workers in 10 states still make that amount, $2.13 an hour, and workers in eight more make under $3.00. In New York City, ROC’s birthplace and the country’s most “foodie” American city, workers make $5.00 plus tips. In all states, employers are obligated to pay workers when their tips, combined with the base wage, don’t bring them to the national minimum of $7.25 an hour. Compliance, advocates say, is uneven at best. ROC research has found nationwide and industry-wide problems with stolen wages, uncompensated injuries, and racial discrimination.

In February, Representative Donna Edwards (4th District of Maryland) introduced the WAGES Act (H.R. 631) which would move the tipped minimum from $2.13 to $5.50 over two years, then peg it at 70 percent of the minimum wage. But the National Restaurant Association, which noted in February that “restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $604 billion this year,” opposes the bill. That’s why ROC brought their roving, musical awareness-raising flash dance mob, and its stationary follow up, the Restaurant Worker Olympics, to Chicago, home of the NRA. 

But I-can’t-dance theatrics are just part of ROC’s serious push to revolutionize the conditions of the restaurant workers. It’s been a long road since 9/11, when ROC’s precursor organization was started by Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (now UNITE HERE) to serve the surviving workers at Windows on the World, who were members of Local 100 until 9/11 destroyed their workplace and ended their employment (thus terminating their union membership). They were the lucky ones: 73 Windows on the World workers died in the disaster.

In the 10 years since 9/11, ROC has grown from a workers center serving New York restaurant employees to a national organization dedicated to improving conditions in the entire restaurant industry. It’s their work, said ROC-United Co-director Saru Jayaraman, to “build a legacy in their name.” Jayaraman pointed out that the restaurant industry is the largest and fastest-growing in the country, but restaurant workers “make the lowest wages in the United States. When our industry changes, it will change the whole economy.” But, she added, “We have a long way to go.”

Fekkak Mamdouh, who worked at Windows on the World until it was destroyed then served as a Red Cross caseworker in the 9/11 aftermath, has co-directed ROC with Jayaraman from the very beginning. “Before 9/11, I didn’t think there was discrimination here. I thought other people were lazy,” he said. Mamdouh is from Morocco and a Muslim, and he added that the tragedy and the subsequent racial profiling by the government, the media, and by people around him highlighted the realities of race and class in the U.S. “I could see the obstacles,” and ROC, he said, was a way of “doing something positive.

Many of Mamdouh’s Windows coworkers have fallen away since then, but some original activists remain. One, Shailesh Sreshtra, comprised one half of the New York team competing in the Busser’s Maze, the first event of the first-ever Restaurant Worker Olympics, which followed the flash mob that sunny Sunday in Chicago. Sresthra, who said he has been a server for 13 years, loped over overturned milk crates to bring New York the bronze. He emigrated from Nepal and later explained that his home country won a flat, nationwide service charge that goes directly to service workers this year, after a two-decade-long fight.

ROC activists say their national expansion will help win exactly that type of widespread change. The group now has chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Michigan, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., in addition to New York. Industry-wide changes they’re pushing for include paid time off for sick workers. A bill guaranteeing just that to New York workers garnered support in the City Council until Speaker Christine Quinn squashed it in October.

Each ROC affiliate follows the New York model of organizing based on policy advocacy, lawsuits, and training, but each affiliate can add their own concerns. For example, in New Orleans, activists are hoping to win passage of a bill in their City Council that would give workers a seven-day grace period to reclaim their jobs once a mandatory evacuation order ends. “Mass transit is good for getting people out of the city” before a hurricane, explained ROC-New Orleans advisory board member Darrin Browder,”but [it’s] not good at getting them back in.” He added that restaurant workers often have to get jobs wherever they find themselves, to finance their return to New Orleans. Access to healthy food is a big issue for restaurant workers and their communities in nearly every city where ROC has a chapter, and especially so in Detroit, where the local chapter is local legislation on the issue. They’re also the next chapter to add a Colors, the ROC-started, worker-owned cooperative restaurant that serves locally sourced, sustainably grown food. The restaurant is scheduled to open September 12.

In New York, Colors is in talks with the USDA to host a farmer’s market for food stamp recipients, which is designed to address the limited access low-income residents face all over the country, Jayaraman said. Colors hosts some classes offered by the Culinary Arts program at Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College, which in turn, offers credit for those ROC activists looking to parlay their ROC training into a college degree. In September, Colors will open for lunch, cooked and served by students supervised by ROC and KCC faculty, and at new, lower prices, “so our own worker-owners [can] bring their families to eat there,” Jayaraman said. After Detroit, New Orleans is scheduled to open the third location, in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The national expansion has meant changes for an organization that started out focused solely on New York City, Jayaraman said. “It’s made us even more diverse—we definitely don’t consider ourselves an immigrant organization anymore. In New York, 70 percent of restaurant workers are male, but nationally the majority are female.” Jayaraman said the organization receives an email or phone call a week from restaurant workers in locations where there isn’t a chapter.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, restaurant workers from around the country suspended their solidarity for a little friendly competition. After the bussers’ race (Michigan won), back-of-the-house folks duked it out over cupcakes. ROC-Chicago activist Mo Williams, owner of dessert catering company Mo Sweets, baked up eight different batches of cupcakes and plastic bags full of frosting, based on recipes sent in by the teams in advance. Each team of two decorated five cupcakes in five minutes, then presented it to a panel of judges, who considered presentation, taste, and concept.

Chicago took the gold for including locally-brewed stout in the batter, “representing our city’s working class,” according to contestant Riley Henderson. The New York team, which didn’t place, put espresso in the frosting and a stuffed rat atop one cupcake, in homage to the inflatable “union rat” often seen on the city’s sidewalk. Williams had also baked mini versions of all eight entries—enough for most onlookers. After the winners were announced, the smack-talking faded into the quiet of chewing and the camaraderie returned. ROC activists reprised their flash mob song and dance for the judges, then launched into the organization’s slogan (“We are power. We are strong. Who are we? ROC-United!)” in language after language—English, Arabic, French, Kreyol, Spanish, Tamil, Chinese, and more, each activist stepping into the circle to lead the chant in another language, the group making an impressive effort to repeat unfamiliar syllables.

In this one early moment, full of sugar and sunshine, this tiny representation of the nation’s 10.3 million restaurant workers seemed ready to, in the words of a Miami restaurant worker, “reclaim our rights as people.”