Food and restaurant workers all around the country are getting organized. Since the Great Recession millions of people lost their jobs. Meanwhile, the restaurant sector has continued to grow. Both the people who lost their jobs (education, construction, manufacturing, retail and medical services) and new workers exiting college and high school are competing for jobs in restaurants.
With all of the organic and local items on menus, it has never been a better time to eat in our country. At the same time, this may be the worst time in a long time to be a restaurant worker.
As an example, the wages of restaurant workers in Philadelphia have declined by 11% since 2003 and nationally, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t increased since 1991. As a result, restaurant workers are fighting back. This year we witnessed cafeteria workers at Upenn conducting job actions despite not having a union affiliation (they recently joined the Teamsters and have a contract). Also, fast food workers starting conducting strikes at McDonald’s all across the country and tomorrow we expect hundreds of workers to conduct job actions at 100 fast food restaurants. Darden workers are speaking out against the low-wages. Yesterday, five former workers from a popular Philadelphia sushi restaurant announced that they had reached a $40,000 settlement with their employer, showing a growing food worker movement a powerful example of how they can get organized and win.
The victory is the culmination of a unique effort started by the workers this year. The employer was accused of taking some portion of tips from his workers with various justifications such as to cover some of the credit card usage fees and for workers not being proficient in menu knowledge. It is pretty amazing to look back at this enormous victory and remember how it all started. In Mid-April, Diana a ROC member and a worker at the restaurant, reached out to Philly ROC staff member, Sheila Maddali, and stated that she and a couple of her co-workers were planning on quitting in protest of the wage issues.
We convinced them to meet with us before giving their employer their quitting notice. We met with them and gave them a short training on what their rights are as workers. They decided to go on strike rather than quit.
A couple days later, Sheila and I followed Diana, Claire and Jeff into the restaurant at 11 at night and they made their employer aware of their strike and outlined their problems with the working conditions (See earlier posts for a video of the announcement). The next week was nerve racking for us all but as the deadline that they set for their employer approached, we were excited when more workers from the restaurant stepped forward in solidarity of their effort.
On May 1st, Claire and Diana announced their strike to the world with a small group of supporters and members of the media. In total, 13 of their fellow co-workers signed on a public statement to the restaurant owner. These women inspired us with their courage. No one who went on strike or signed the letter was fired as a result. At that time the Galfand Berger, LLC, stepped forward to offer these workers representation. Since that time, these women have driven the negotiation process. They were also glad to get some help from their co-workers, Justine and Sean who joined this independent, work-place-justice campaign after the strike started.
I can assure you, there were times when they were scared and we at ROC were concerned for them during those sketchy moments. They were unfairly criticized by other workers in the industry on the internet, and one of them had a hard time finding another job because she had been labeled as a “trouble-maker” by some restaurant owners.
Nonetheless, they stuck together and they stayed organized and kept pressing forward, step by step.
Henry Yampolsky, an attorney from Galfand Berger LLC, represented these workers with an amazing attention to detail and a fantastic amount of energy and professionalism. Mr. Yampolsky pointed out in this report by Pat Loew from KYW CBS Radio that they had the law on their side. I think that they have set a good example for other restaurant and food workers across our country who want to stand up for their rights (much less the 2/3rds of workers in our country who suffer some form of wage theft). Attorney Debra Jensen also points out that all workers can utilize the law to their advantage in this article by Randy Lobasso in the Philadelphia Weekly.
If you are a restaurant worker (or a worker from any industry) you can win your rights with the right combination of self-organization, direct-action, a solid strategy, a plan to get your message out to the public, legal support and persistence.