FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

No Unions Behind The Kitchen Door?

by STEVE EARLY

Last year’s multi-city protests by fast food workers focused long overdue attention on the job problems of ten million Americans employed in restaurants. Saru Jayaraman, the charismatic co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), has been assisting workers in finer dining establishments for more than a decade, an organizing career impressively chronicled in her new book, Behind The Kitchen Door, from Cornell University Press.

As Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, says in his introduction, ROC “doesn’t just represent workers. It seeks to empower them, gain them respect, and give them a voice at work.”

Jayaraman is a Yale-educated lawyer who directs the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She got her start, with much help from UNITE-HERE Local 100, after the 9/11 attacks destroyed Windows on the World, a swank restaurant that sat atop one of the Trade Center towers. Seventy-three workers died and 250 lost their jobs. Windows workers became the nucleus of the original ROC, which provided support services for families of the deceased.

Fekkak Mamdouh, a Moroccan immigrant and former headwaiter at Windows, became a co-founder of the organization. Jayaraman and Mamdouh launched a successful campaign for re-employment of displaced workers when the owner of Windows tried to open a new restaurant elsewhere in Manhattan but initially refused to hire former union members.

In Behind The Kitchen Door, Jayaraman describes ROC’s organizing model, which emphasizes rank-and-file leadership development and collective action of the sort much needed in more unions. Unlike union dues payers, however, almost none of ROC’s claimed “10,000 members” actually help finance their own organization, leaving it almost entirely dependent on private philanthropies. ROC now operates in twenty states, with a $4 million annual budget raised primarily from 16 foundations including Ford and Rockefeller. (For a detailed, if distinctly unfriendly account of ROC’s prodigious funding-raising, see The Emerging Role of Workers Centers in Union Organizing, a report written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by management consultant Jarol B. Mannheim and posted here.)

High Road Employers?

Jayaraman’s book contains inspiring profiles of ROC activists, many of them immigrants, who have battled race and sex discrimination, sexual harassment, unsafe or unhealthy conditions. ROC campaigns combine carrots with sticks. Restaurants targeted because of their unfair labor practices face creative picketing, bad publicity, community pressure, and legal complaints. The author reports that, in nearly a dozen campaigns “against exploitation in high-profile restaurants,” ROC has won back “more than $6 million in stolen tips and wages” and “fought to change policies that have an impact on restaurant workers, such as increasing the federal-tipped minimum wage from $2.13 an hour.”

When image-conscious celebrity chefs (like Mario Batali) or other wealthy owners see the light, ROC stands ready to help them become “responsible employers.” Its “partners” are invited to join ROC’s Restaurant Industry Roundtable, a place where they can “learn best practices from one another and generally work together to promote the ‘high road’ to profitability in the industry.” In addition to being a savvy industry watch-dog and whistle-blower, ROC has also opened worker-owned restaurants, called COLORS, in New York City and Detroit to provide job training for its supporters and employment in model eateries.

Behind The Kitchen Door demonstrates, above all, how ROC has creatively linked workplace issues to the concerns of those who want their restaurant fare to be “organic, locally grown, slow, cage free, and grass-fed.” Jayaraman provides a checklist of things that ethical eaters can do to help restaurant workers win better wages and working conditions.

She proposes that consumers with a social conscience lobby for paid sick days, support minimum wage increases for tipped workers, use the ROC National Diners’ Guide to avoid restaurants that cheat or otherwise mistreat their employees, and “support workers all along the food chain” so that labor standards can also be raised for “farmworkers, meat-and poultry processing workers, food retail and distribution workers, and supermarket workers.” (For ROC’s latest approved restaurant list, see: http://rocunited.org/dinersguide/)

Unfortunately, formal collective bargaining is not one of the author’s recommended “recipes for change” in the restaurant industry. This is a strange omission because, despite all its flaws, unionization is a far more effective mechanism for taming management misbehavior, on a day-to-day basis, than any hard-to-enforce restaurateur pledge to engage in “sustainable business practices.”

No Union Labor?

In the workers’ center demonology of the Chamber and Congressional Republicans, organizations like ROC have been depicted recently as a sneaky “back-door approach” to unionization. Yet, in her book, Jayaraman never mentions that hundreds of thousands of “food chain” workers have far greater legal protection and workplace representation than any workers’ center, including her own, can provide. These workers cook and prepare food in unionized stadium concession stands, campus, corporate and government  cafeterias, hotel dining rooms, and restaurants located in major airports and casinos. They belong to UNITE-HERE and other AFL-CIO or Change To Win unions.

In Beyond The Kitchen Door, the author never even mentions UNITE HERE by name, even though it’s the main food service workers union and helped her start ROC in New York. She notes that, “in January, 2008, ROC helped launch the Food Chain Workers Alliance,” without acknowledging that other “worker-run organizations” affiliated with the same coalition include the United Food and Commercial Workers, as well as UNITE HERE. Nor does her book report on the activities of “alt labor” groups, like Young Workers United in San Francisco, which challenged the Cheesecake Factory around ROC-type issues and won a string of local victories. (YWU has long been housed in or near the offices of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 2.)

Jayaramen’s organizational self-centeredness and limited reform agenda are major shortcomings of her otherwise smartly packaged volume. Potential non-labor allies, in the sustainable food movement, need to know not just about the great work of ROC. They also need to be educated about the value of workers gaining a union contract, rather than just relying on wage-and-hour law enforcement, new protective legislation, or lawsuits leading to agreements covering a few thousand workers at restaurants that remain non-union.

The national AFL-CIO has finally—and officially– become more welcoming of workers centers. So, in return, it might behoove the talented architect of ROC to describe more accurately a broader industry context in which organized labor and her own labor advocacy group play different but complementary roles in “lifting industry standards.”

Steve Early was a longtime union organizer for the Communications Workers of America and is currently a member of TNG/CWA Local 39521 in San Francisco. His most recent book is Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, Monthly Review Press, 2013. He can be reached at http://steveearly.org or Lsupport@aol.com.

Steve Early is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area currently working on a book about progressive municipal policy making there and elsewhere. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013). He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

Weekend Edition
February 12-14, 2016
Andrew Levine
What Next in the War on Clintonism?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Comedy of Terrors: When in Doubt, Bomb Syria
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh – Anthony A. Gabb
Financial Oligarchy vs. Feudal Aristocracy
Paul Street
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
Rob Urie
The (Political) Season of Our Discontent
Pepe Escobar
It Takes a Greek to Save Europa
Gerald Sussman
Why Hillary Clinton Spells Democratic Party Defeat
Carol Norris
What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Election: Any Good News for Palestine?
Linda Pentz Gunter
Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget
Michael Welton
Lenin, Putin and Me
Manuel García, Jr.
Fire in the Hole: Bernie and the Cracks in the Neo-Liberal Lid
Thomas Stephens
The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective
David Rosen
When Trump Confronted a Transgender Beauty
Will Parrish
Cap and Clear-Cut
Victor Grossman
Coming Cutthroats and Parting Pirates
Ben Terrall
Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy
David Yearsley
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Formation: Form-Fitting Uniforms of Revolution and Commerce
David Mattson
Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World
Matthew Stevenson
Confessions of a Primary Insider
Jeff Mackler
Friedrichs v. U.S. Public Employee Unions
Franklin Lamb
Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions
Pete Dolack
More Unemployment and Less Security
Christopher Brauchli
The Cruzifiction of Michael Wayne Haley
Bill Quigley
Law on the Margins: a Profile of Social Justice Lawyer Chaumtoli Huq
Uri Avnery
A Lady With a Smile
Katja Kipping
The Opposite of Transparency: What I Didn’t Read in the TIPP Reading Room
B. R. Gowani
Hellish Woman: ISIS’s Granny Endorses Hillary
Kent Paterson
The Futures of Whales and Humans in Mexico
James Heddle
Why the Current Nuclear Showdown in California Should Matter to You
Michael Howard
Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse
Steven Gorelick
Branding Tradition: a Bittersweet Tale of Capitalism at Work
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s UN Victory and Redemption of the West
Patrick Bond
World Bank Punches South Africa’s Poor, by Ignoring the Rich
Mel Gurtov
Is US-Russia Engagement Still Possible?
Dan Bacher
Governor Jerry Brown Receives Cold, Dead Fish Award Four Years In A Row
Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Fighting and Protecting Refugees
Jennifer Matsui
Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film
Soud Sharabani
Israeli Myths: An Interview with Ramzy Baroud
Terry Simons
Bernie? Why Not?
Missy Comley Beattie
When Thoughtful People Think Illogically
Christy Rodgers
Everywhere is War: Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories
Ron Jacobs
Springsteen: Rockin’ the House in Albany, NY
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too
Charles R. Larson
No Brainers: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail