What’s the connection between Labor Day and 9/11?
By Saru Jayaraman

This is a special Labor Day for the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). 2011 is an incredible year – not only the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the origins of our founding, but also the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We see so many parallels in the incredibly labor movement built in the aftermath of that tragedy, and the restaurant worker movement we are trying to build in the aftermath of 9/11.

73 low-wage immigrant workers died at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, Tower 1 on September 11th, 2001, and about 300 workers lost their jobs in that restaurant. Shortly after the tragedy I received a phone call from the union for Windows on the World workers, asking if I could help start up a temporary relief center for the survivors together with a waiter from the restaurant, Fekkak Mamdouh. An immigrant from Morocco, Mamdouh (as everyone called him) had worked in the industry for 17 years and had been a fierce defender of his co-workers’ rights as union shop steward at Windows on the World.

Mamdouh and I were asked to simply help survivors get back on their feet, but very shortly after the tragedy we were overwhelmed with requests for help from restaurant workers claiming that their rights had been violated on the job. We both soon discovered that we had stepped into a minefield: with over 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the US economy, but provides largely poverty wage jobs with no benefits, pervasive employment law violations, and severe occupational segregation and discrimination. The Windows workers embarked on a journey with us, many saying that they found their greatest solace after the tragedy in helping us build an organization to fight to uplift their fellow workers and themselves.

In 2004, just a few years after our founding, we were embroiled in a challenging campaign against wage theft and discrimination at a high profile fine dining restaurant company in Manhattan.  A well-known right-wing editorialist wrote an excoriating piece about us in a national restaurant trade magazine with the title, “Group Uses 9/11 to Advocate for Restaurant Workers’ Rights.” The editorialist was accusing us of exploiting our 9/11 roots to obtain funds and resources to actually organize restaurant workers. I remember reading the article in our tiny office in TriBeCa, Manhattan, where seven of us crowded into a single room. Mamdouh and I were initially angry. How could he accuse us of such a thing? We discussed the options with the rest of the staff, who were mostly former Windows workers: we could write a response, but the restaurant trade magazine was unlikely to publish it. We actually ended up doing nothing.  In thinking about it, the editorialist was right, and we were proud of what we had done. We had used 9/11 to shed light on a population and problem that had existed long before the tragedy.

Windows on the World and its workers were made famous by 9/11. Family members of the 73 victims and the 300 surviving workers were repeatedly profiled in the media. Thousands of dollars in donations poured in from all over the world in support of the survivors and the families of the victims. These immigrant restaurant workers and their families, previously invisible, had suddenly become visible. And when these workers decided to deal with their grief for their fallen brothers and sisters by uniting to change their industry, it made headlines.

At the turn of the last century, women organized and built the most powerful unions this country has seen in the aftermath of the terrible shirtwaist factory fire – which ultimately led to the passage of all the labor laws we have on the books today. Like them, we are unwilling to let our 73 fallen brothers and sisters from Windows die in vain. Instead, their legacy will be that we used this terrible tragedy to transform an industry. Over the last ten years, Mamdouh and I have worked with thousands of restaurant workers to grow ROC from those humble beginnings to a national restaurant workers’ advocacy organization with close to 8000 members in eight cities nationwide. Over that period we have: won ten campaigns against exploitation and discrimination in high profile restaurant companies, victories that included significant policy changes and damages totaling more than $5 million in stolen tips and wages and discrimination payments; organized over 50 responsible restaurant employers into an alternative restaurant association that has won publicly-funded restaurant owner education programs; opened two worker-owned restaurants, in New York and Detroit, called COLORS; trained over 2500 low-wage workers living-wage fine-dining bartending and serving skills; published fifteen reports on the industry that have been profiled in media outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, and the CBS Evening News; played an instrumental role in increasing the tipped minimum wage in New York State and introducing historic legislation on the tipped minimum wage in Congress; and more.

The moment we decided to go national came in 2007, when survivors of Hurricane Katrina called us and said – “you built something for hospitality workers out of a tragedy – help us do the same.” We answered that call, and set up shop not only in New Orleans, but then also in Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. A former Windows on the World worker, Sekou Siby, now runs ROC-NY, the local organization while we lead the national organization, ROC-United. An immigrant from the Ivory Coast, Siby embodies everything we did and are proud of: using 9/11 to open a new window on the world of low-wage restaurant workers.

This September 11th, join us in commemorating ten years of building a restaurant worker movement as a legacy for our fallen brothers and sisters of Windows on the World, just as much of what we have now in terms of labor protections were a legacy of the young women who died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factor. On September 8th, from 6-10pm, join us at COLORS Restaurant, 417 Lafayette, in Astor Place, New York City, for what promises to be a special evening. And then again on September 12th, from 6-9pm, for the opening of the second COLORS Restaurant in Detroit Michigan, at 311 E. Grand Avenue, in Detroit.

And join our movement for change! Whether you work in restaurants or eat in them, help us make the industry better for everyone! Through our newly revamped website – www.rocunited.org – you can send letters to your legislators to demand a better industry. You can join us in demanding an increase to the minimum wage for tipped workers –currently $2.13-  or for paid sick leave for all workers. Together, we can ensure that, in the name of our fallen brothers and sisters, we create a legacy of change in the industry we all touch, feel and taste every day.