Harder than it looks

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roc-nyThe Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a worker center group that has received SEIU support, loves to try to tell restaurant owners how to do their job. In 2006, the front group decided to try to show restaurant owners how they should do their job and opened “Colors” in New York City. To put it mildly, the restaurant has had a troubled history.

The restaurant was advertised as a co-op owned by workers from a famous New York restaurant destroyed on 9/11. In 2007, several workers sued the Restaurant Opportunity Center for failing to pay them what they were owed and failing to give them the ownership interest they were promised. As reported by the New York Post:

“ROC-NY used us and many others to perform hundreds of hours of unpaid work to raise money and promote its name and the co-op restaurant project. They even had us kick back our tips when we worked at parties and events as cooks and waiters,” one of the former Windows [on the World] employees, Orlando Godoy, said.

“We put in the time because we believed that we were ‘worker-owners’ . . . The only owners are ROC and the Italian investors. Our work remains unpaid.”

Godoy was one of 330 people employed at Windows when it was destroyed on 9/11, killing 73 of his co-workers.

At one point, the executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Saru Jayaraman, demanded workers sign a contract agreeing to pay dues and attend protests, among other things. The plight of the restaurant workers was so bad that a union lawyer agreed to take the case pro bono. Again, from the Post in 2007:

[Former restaurant board member Behzad] Pasdar charges, Jayaraman used ex-Windows staffers as a “golden goose.” “She dragged them around town to [raise money from] foundations. But she wouldn’t even pay them as promised.”

Nereda Pena’s story seems to confirm that. The Mexican-born former Windows worker, whom ROC used to fund-raise for Colors, spoke recently to The Post in Spanish. “I came to ROC everyday, sometimes as early as six. I worked all day. I was told I would get paid, but they never gave me anything. Instead, I’d get back to ROC at the end of the day and ask for enough to buy a subway fare home. They refused even that,” she said. This, she says, went on for months…

“[ROC’s executive director] would often say, ‘We don’t want white people here. We don’t work with white people.’ We would argue that as a social-justice organization, we can’t distinguish between races. But she said we use whites and then leave them.”…

“I’ve spent my whole life working in city restaurants,” says Pasdar, “but nothing was as bad as the three years I spent with ROC.”

In late 2007, a new chef arrived to try to turn around the restaurant, which was deeply in debt. Things were so bad that the restaurant struggled to pay its rent and workers voted to slash their minimum wage by more than $4 an hour. This time, from the New York Sun:

“I walked in and I was asked to pick up the pieces,” Christopher Faulkner, who took over as Colors’s chef in November, said. “I walked into a disaster.”

The previous chef had left months earlier along with almost half the original staff of 58. The remaining employees hadn’t been paid in weeks. Dishes on the menu were deleted, one by one, and there wasn’t enough money to order food supplies.

In 2009, the restaurant closed for five months. It closed again in 2012 and wasn’t reopened until last fall.

In addition to its financial and labor problems, the restaurant has also had sanitation problems. The New York Department of Health twice cited it for “critical violations” involving rats and mice.

Who Pays?

Early on, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union provided funding; Bruce Herman, a former union leader, helped arrange additional funding.

Union support continues, according to Workercenterwatch.com:

“The unions have been a major source of initial and on-going funding and in fact, have provided significant in-kind contributions as well. In fact, the ROC chapter in Los Angeles has been housed within the SEIU offices for some time. The support comes in various ways – direct subsidies, in-kind support and grants such as the hundreds of thousands of dollars they have received from the AFL-CIO-related Consortium for Worker Education.”

It also appears that SEIU is supporting ROC’s efforts in Seattle. Liberal foundations and government agencies provide additional funding for ROC.

Maybe the Restaurant Opportunities Center should treat its own employees better – and learn how to run a clean, successful restaurant – before it goes around lecturing everyone else.

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