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"Color" Them Bad: Restaurant Shakedown Group Suddenly An Expert On Ethics

There's a hilarious sketch in the comedy show "Portlandia" that features a painfully liberal couple attempting to order a meal in a restaurant. Unfortunately, their earnest desire to be politically correct in all things thwarts their efforts as they barrage the flummoxed waitress with a flurry of questions about the food on offer:

Is the chicken organic? Is that U.S.D.A. organic, Oregon organic, or Portland organic? How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?

And on and on...

The sketch, like the show, is a good-natured ribbing of left-wing concerns, a reductio ad absurdum of the liberal mind. Unfortunately, as so often happens, real life threatens to out-satirize even the best satire, as The Huffington Post brings us news guaranteed to warm the hearts of Portandia's socially concerned couple:

Following their mission to improve wages and working conditions for the nation's restaurant workforce, ROC -- the Restaurant Opportunity Centers -- have launched the ROC National Diner's Guide to Ethical Eating, a yearly publication that puts labor issues at the forefront. The rating criteria include wages, benefits (including health insurance and sick days), and opportunities for professional advance and internal promotions.

To assist in this mission, Clay Ewing, an assistant professor at the University of Miami, has teamed up with ROC to create a mobile app that, in Ewing's words, "...allows customers to make a decision on their restaurant based off of different decisions rather than just the food." The app ranks restaurants in five categories, including whether or not they offer paid sick leave, and whether they provide a "suitable" living wage (whatever that means).

But wait a minute: Just what is a "Restaurant Opportunity Center," and who are they to rate eateries?

Founded by Saru Jayaraman in aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, ROC was originally a NYC-based non-profit devoted to helping displaced workers from the Windows on the World, a famous World Trade Center restaurant. ROC has since grown into a national organization (ROC-United) dedicated to, according to the group's website, improving the "wages and working conditions for the nation's low wage restaurant workforce."

Through participatory research and policy work, employer engagement, workplace justice campaigns, membership and leadership development, and more, ROC-United has become a powerful national vehicle for restaurant workers to lift their collective voices on issues affecting all low-wage workers, including the minimum wage, paid sick days, compliance with basic employment standards, and lack of health care.

These goals sound a lot like those of a labor union. ROC denies that it is any such creature though, as the Village Voice once noted, "it often employs the tactics of bargaining, protesting, and picketing." In other words, it looks like a union and quacks like a union. But there's a reason why it strives mightily to convince people that it is not a union. As the website ROCexposed.com explains:

While labor union activities are highly regulated under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and other labor laws, the activities of so-called “worker centers” remain largely unregulated. By operating as a worker center, ROC can claim 501(c)(3) charitable organization status, which allows ROC to pay no taxes and to raise tax deductible contributions from foundations. But more importantly, this also allows ROC to flagrantly skirt federal labor laws and union disclosure requirements.

Avoiding official classification as a union allows ROC to get away with tactics no union could get away with. For example, in 2005 ROC targeted the Redeye Grill in New York City. Shelly Fireman, of  the Fireman Hospitality Group (owner of Redeye Grill) described the scene: "In November '05, ROC stormed our restaurant...in the middle of dinner service, armed with loudspeakers, noisemakers and cameras." The protesters handed him a letter accusing the owners of Redeye Grill of "subjecting our employees to wage and hour violations, sexual abuse, verbal abuse and racial discrimination." ROC kindly offered a way for Fireman to purge himself of these alleged sins:

The letter demanded we send them $3 million and threatened that if we refused to pay, ROC would launch pickets, media attacks and lawsuits against us.

It was a shakedown tactic that had already borne fruit -- earlier that same year, ROC had descended on the four-star restaurant Daniel during the dinner rush, disrupted its operations with accusations of discrimination, and threatened the owners with a 1.2 million lawsuit. Daniel later settled.

The Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group was similarly targeted and similarly settled. However, Smith & Wollensky took pains to note that it was "settling the dispute to avoid the time, trouble and extraordinary expense of further litigation," and not because it had done anything wrong. Of course, ROC, like all shakedown organizations, counts on such pragmatic, dollars and cents calculations on the part of business owners -- it's why nuisance lawsuits work.

Not content to just agitate and bully restaurant owners, ROC became convinced they could be a paragon of ethical food service, and in 2006 launched their own restaurant called Colors. More a social experiment than anything else, Colors claims to be owned and operated by its workers and dedicated to "...local farming, ethical employee practices, excellent service" and, oh yeah "delectable dishes" (whew!).

Sadly, Colors has been cited a number of times for extremely non-delectable violations by inspectors from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, including evidence of "mice or live mice present in facility's food and/or non food areas," as well as "food contact surface not properly washed, rinsed and sanitized," and "hand washing facility not provided in or near food preparation area and toilette room."

Even the Portlandia couple could see the true "Colors" of the ROC, a shakedown racket that exhibits all of the brutish tendencies of a labor union but is bound by none of the legal and financial accountability requirements of unions. And now they want to tell you where to eat with their Guide to Ethical Eating while their own restaurant has failed the most basic standards of sanitation.

Check please.