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PORTSIDELABOR  September 2011, Week 3

PORTSIDELABOR September 2011, Week 3

Subject:

A Workers' Movement for Dignity & Justice in the Restaurant Industry

From:

Portside Labor <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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Date:

Fri, 16 Sep 2011 19:54:26 -0400

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Born Out of 9/11: A Workers' Movement for Dignity &
Justice in the Restaurant Industry 

Monday, 12 September 2011 16:57 

Andalusia Knoll 

http://www.towardfreedom.com/labor/2538-born-out-of-911-a-workers-movement-for-dignity-a-justice-in-the-restaurant-industry

ROC Workers. (Photo from michigan.rocunited.org)

ROC Workers. (Photo from michigan.rocunited.org) With
the 10th anniversary of 9/11 upon us, people across the
nation are mourning but also reflecting on the social
justice movements that this tragedy spawned. In the
aftermath of the September 11th attacks people starting
mobilizing to oppose the arbitrary detentions of South
Asian, Arab and Muslim people, the rollback of civil
rights and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But 9/11
also spawned a lesser known workers justice movement
known as the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)
United. Over the last decade ROC United has grown to
over 8,000 members in eight chapters across the
country.

Among the thousands who perished in 9/11 were the 73
mostly immigrant low wage workers who worked at the
Upscale restaurant Windows On The World on the top
floors of the World Trade Center. The remaining 300+
employees were left without work, along with thousands
of other workers in the ground zero area whose
restaurants closed from contamination. Some of these
workers banded together to form ROC and create work
opportunities for the displaced workers with a focus on
creating more dignified conditions.

Fekkak Mamdouh, a Moroccan Immigrant is one of the
founders of ROC and the current co-director of ROC
United. As a survivor of 9/11 and former employee of
Windows On the World he has dedicated the past ten
years of his life to the legacy of his co-workers. I
spoke with Mamdouh at COLORS, the ROC cooperatively run
and owned restaurant in lower Manhattan.

"After we started the organization, we thought we have
to start this, we have to own a restaurant to be in the
memory of the 73 people we lost in 9/11. We wanted a
place where the survivors could come and remember them,
where the families could come and remember them."

COLORS opened in 2006 and has 10 co-owners who
collectively make decisions about the restaurant's
operation, choose the eclectic menu that is
representative of the nationalities of the people who
work there, and share in profits. Mamdouh added "It's
perfect, it's the best thing working in your own place.
If you're a guest all the owners are serving you, we
all believe in helping other people."

In the back of the restaurant you find Mexican
immigrants working not just as dishwashers and busboys
- low wage positions that they are typically relegated
to - but also as chefs and line cooks. Oscar Gallindo
from Nezahualcoyotl City, Mexico talks to me about
workers rights in the industry as he prepares a quinoa
curry salad with upbeat Latin cumbia music plays in the
background. Gallindo says he was very depressed in the
year following 9/11 as he worked close-by to the World
Trade Center and lost his job. He could not find new
employment and was also mourning the deaths of all his
fellow workers in the area. Once he heard about the
organizing work that the former Windows On The World
employees were doing, he immediately joined forces with
them not just to find employment but also to work
against exploitation in the field.

Colors Line Chef Oscar Gallindo prepares dinner (Photo:
Knoll)

Colors Line Chef Oscar Gallindo prepares dinner (Photo:
Knoll) "Normally within this system there is the boss,
the owner, the manager, those who manage the business,
and then the workers. The system, what it does in
general, is oppress the workers so they will produce
the maximum possible. Many places they yell, they don't
pay minimum wage, take the money from your tips way,"
Gallindo told me.

He added that at COLORS they strive to operate a
business with "respect and dignity" and to serve as a
positive example for the "bad restaurant owners." He
also said in general at restaurants you often find the
so called "pretty faces in the front, and the ugly ones
in the back." He is referring to the systemic racism
within the restaurant industry in which white workers
often fill better paid front end positions in the
hospitality business and people of color in the back
end. Mamdouh echoed this sentiment and added that in
his near 20 years in the restaurant industry he has
never once met a white dishwasher.

The Color of Food, a recent report published by the
Applied Research Center, confirms Gallindo's statement
and shows how workers of color are highly concentrated
in low-wage food service jobs, such as food preparation
and fast food. Yvonne Liu was a chief researcher for a
report and says they analyzed federal labor data which
revealed systematic racism in all four sectors of the
food chain, food production, food processing,
distribution and food service.

"People of color who work in the food chain make more
than $5,000 dollars less per year. As women there is
also a gender penalty for workers as well. For every
dollar that a white male worker earns in the food
chain, a woman of color earns almost half that," Liu
said.

The study also found that white men predominantly fill
manager positions and that the lowest wage positions
are generally filled by people of color. This report
was published in conjunction with the organization
Focus on the Food Chain, a network of workers
organizing across all sectors of the food chain
including the farmworker organization Coalition of
Immokalee Workers, food processors Union United Food
and Commercial Workers Local 770, ROC United and
others.

The research arm of ROC United has also released its
own report: "Behind the Kitchen Door: A Multi-site
Study of the Restaurant Industry." Drawing on findings
from 4,000 surveys, hundreds of interviews with
employers and workers and governmental data they found
that less than 22% of restaurant workers make a livable
wage and that 87.7% of workers nationwide do not have
paid sick days. Racial discrimination was also widely
prevalent in their research with the median wage for
white workers clocking in at $13.25 compared to $9.54
for workers of color.

ROC Workers (Photo: michigan.rocunited.org)

ROC Workers (Photo: michigan.rocunited.org) This data
is used by ROC not just to inform the American public
about these wage disparities between restaurant workers
and the private sector at large, but also to supplement
workers organizing against exploitative conditions in
restaurants. Since its inception ROC has helped over
400 workers organize across the country against sexual
harassment, stolen tips, and racial discrimination
resulting in financial settlements of over $5 million.
Using creative tactics, like dancing flash mobs, and
protests filled with large puppets and banners held
outside of the restaurants, ROC members were able to
shed light and challenge unfair working conditions that
often go overlooked and unreported in the restaurant
industry.

Mamdouh said, "We never lose, any campaign we go to. We
don't win because we are strong, we win because we are
right. It's so easy; people get discriminated, if you
go to court you're going to win."

ROC has also launched policy campaigns advocating for
the passage of WAGES, a federal bill that would
incrementally raise the minimum tipped wage for waiters
and waitresses from $2.13 per hour to $5.50 per hour -
or the equivalent of 70% of the minimum wage. Through
its research ROC has also discovered that two thirds of
restaurant workers reported working while they are
sick, because of the widespread absence of paid sick
days, and thus have been advocating for the passage of
the Healthy Families Act which would give workers up to
seven paid sick days yearly. ROC's policy efforts are
also part of their organizing with The Excluded Workers
Congress that was formed at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum
by workers who are not currently protected under the
1935 National Labor Relations act, which guarantees the
right to collectively bargain.

C.H.O.W. Institute training class (Photo: Knoll)

C.H.O.W. Institute training class (Photo: Knoll) To
further address these disparities ROC started the
C.H.O.W. Institute (Colors Hospitality Opportunities
for Workers) to provide free training at the COLORS
restaurant so ROC members can work their way up in the
industry and obtain better paying jobs. Marie Wiggins,
a training coordinator with the C.H.O.W. institute says
they base their curriculum on the ROC members' needs
and desires. "The members have a say in how and what
goes on, they vote on things, they decide things, they
develop things with us," added Wiggins. She also
emphasized the political education that is a central
focus of the C.H.O.W. Institute with the members
learning about human rights issues, fair trade, organic
and local food and how these values are put into
practice at COLORS.

COLORS has been so successful in advancing restaurant
workers rights and helping thousands of people receive
training in the industry, that it has spawned other
restaurants. On September 12th, a new COLORS restaurant
will open in Detroit. The city of Detroit with its
struggling economy has been long been considered a
"food desert" where fast food and snack food is
abundant and grocery stores with fresh produce are
scarce. Many food justice activists in Detroit have
started urban farms to address this need and the new
COLORS, according to the manager Phil Jones, hopes to
carry 80% locally-sourced food from these urban farms
and others in the area.

"We want to show people that there is a model out there
for treating workers properly, for putting out good
products, for expanding your local food economy and
strengthening food systems in general - even down to
creating healthier food access," said Jones.

ROC members said that their model for building
workplace justice through training, cooperative
ownership and leading campaigns within restaurants who
are disrespecting workers has drawn international
attention. Mamdouh says people in Europe, Asia and
Latin America have contacted them about starting
similar organizations in their countries, and ROC
members hope the movement to create a more dignified
industry will continue to spread and grow over the next
ten years.

Andalusia Knoll is a multimedia journalist, popular
educator and organizer. She is a a program director
with Brooklyn based VibeGirls Radio, a producer with
the national Criminal Justice Dialogue Project Thousand
Kites, and a freelance journalist who has reported for
various news outlets including Democracy Now! Free
Speech Radio News, and TeleSUR. She is in love with
that little box of technology known as the radio and
has conducted bilingual radio and video trainings with
youth and social justice organizations across the
United States and Latin America. When she's not
writing, producing or teaching radio you can catch her
organizing with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or
riding her bike on the streets of Brooklyn. blog
comments powered by Disqus. Last Updated on
Friday, 16 September 2011 01:08   

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