The Non-Union for Restaurant Workers

When is a union not a union? When it decides that organizing a majority of workers is too much trouble and that it can win more money from lawsuit settlements with employers than by collecting dues. Even better, operate as a non-profit and receive donations from foundations and community groups trying to “do good.” And of course don’t forget money from taxpayers via government grants.

Enter the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and its affiliate local chapters (ROC,) a self- described national organization dedicated to the needs of restaurant workers. ROC, which has strong ties to unions such as UNITE-HERE Local 100, seeks to pressure restaurants into acceding to union demands without the unions having resort to traditional organizing tactics.

As ROC co-founder and co-director Saru Jayaraman explains, “One difference between us [ROC] and a union is that in a union you have to get a majority of a shop…. In our case we just get a group of workers, but not necessarily the majority.” The pro-union news website Dollars and Sense, which interviewed Jayaraman, calls this approach “minority unionism,” noting that ROC-NY, ROC’s New York affiliate, “gets workers to act like a union even where the workers have not been legally recognized as a collective bargaining unit.”

Instead of organizing workers, ROC seeks to intimidate restaurant owners into settlement agreements. According to Crain’s New York, ROC-NY has obtained $5 million in settlements from nine separate campaigns. As Crain’s describes it, a ROC campaign “often includes noisy and prolonged protests outside the eatery. Settling is often the less expensive option for restaurateurs mindful of their brand’s image and the cost of a long court fight.”

ROC conducts campaigns of harassment — including picketing, media attacks, and lawsuits — against targeted restaurants, hoping to damage their business to the point that they capitulate. The pressure tactics are calculated to drive away customers — the very customers on whom restaurant employees depend for tips and income.

In a pending case against ROC-NY, the restaurant company B&B Hospitality Group, accused ROC-NY of for engaging in a “campaign of unlawful harassment, intimidation, vandalism, and violence toward [B&B Hospitality Group LLC] and their employees and customers” that included “employing ‘rent-a-mobs’ consisting of ROC-NY members, union operatives, students, and political activists — with almost no actual restaurant workers” for weekly demonstrations outside targeted restaurants.

In early December ROC published its ROC National Diner’s Guide 2012, which purports to “separate the good guys from the bad” and “find restaurants that are doing right by their workers.” In addition to paid sick leave, opportunities for advancement and wages, points were awarded for “restaurants belonging to ROC’s Restaurant Industry Roundtables.” Translation: If you are in the club you will get a good score.

Almost every award winner played ball with ROC. A few even failed a majority of the other criteria. Largely, restaurants in the guide were either heroes or villains, getting top ratings or failing miserably. So much for a non-biased assessment.

What’s in it for the workers on whose behalf ROC claims to be fighting? A clue to that may be Colors, a restaurant ROC itself started to which it, unsurprisingly, awarded top honors. ROC created Colors as a worker-owned cooperative to be governed by a committee and pay better than average wages. Workers would need to contribute 100 hours of work in order to buy their way into the co-op (considerably reducing their total pay).

Tasks to be performed during these “buy in hours” include catering, attending protests, and conducting surveys. One employee characterized the arrangement as exploitative to workers, saying it would “enslave them to do things they don’t want to do.” Colors has had several problems since opening. The utopian experiment has been in financial trouble, accused of employee mistreatment, subject to worker protests, and forced to reduce pay.

The ROC guide is less a guide of restaurant ethical practices than a list of who is — and who isn’t — playing ball with ROC.