Detroit Restaurant Workers Finally at Table with Management

By Kari Lydersen
In These Times
July 30, 2010

There hasn’t been “a day of regular business” at Andiamo restaurant in Dearborn, Mich., since the Restaurant Opportunity Center started its campaign for fair pay and treatment at the Italian chain about a year ago, says ROC policy director Jose Oliva.

The campaign that has included at least three major actions and a dozen smaller actions, plus daily pressure, is finally yielding results according to organizers.

This month the National Labor Relations Board ruled that workers fired in the course of ROC’s campaign were targeted for their organizing activities and must be rehired. (See my previous blog on the Andiamo workers’ struggle here.)

In January, eight workers filed a federal lawsuit seeking about $125,000 in unpaid wages. ROC also alleges widespread discrimination and sexual harassment at the restaurant, one of Andiamo’s 11 in the Detroit metro area.

After months of stonewalling from management, ROC is now in talks with managers which they hope will result in the kind of agreement that is central to the organization’s strategy: turning “low road” employers into “high road” examples for the industry.

During the U.S. Social Forum on June 24, the restaurant closed pre-emptively for a full 24 hours, according to Oliva, as hundreds of workers and supporters from around the country rallied outside. And it wasn’t any normal rally – a bevy of trained dancers in servers’ aprons performed a choreographed production before bobbing banners protesting unpaid wages. The organization had planned to stage the dance inside the restaurant but it was shuttered when they arrived.

“It ended up we made a bigger impact outside–with about 200 Dearborn police there – than if we had been inside,” Oliva said. The protest came on the heels of one two months earlier, during the Labor Notes conference in Dearborn.

“All of these back-to-back actions have made it impossible for them to function normally,” said Oliva, continuing:

The legal system functions more slowly than the ‘people system,’ but we’ve been impacting them with the people system and now the legal actions we’ve filed are also bearing fruit. They would be smart to settle with us quickly or else it will be a hot fall for them. All we want is a fair settlement, for them to sit down and talk with us rationally. Until about month ago that wasn’t happening. They were acting as if ROC was this horrible scourge. But now we are in talks and workers are hopeful. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Organizers and workers hope an agreement at one of the region’s biggest upscale dining chains will have significant ripple effects. “I hope they’re all watching this, I don’t see how they could not be,” said Oliva.

A victory in the Detroit area could be especially significant given its famously depressed economy. ROC is now facing a similar climate in New Orleans, where the restaurant industry makes up a significant part of the city’s tourist culture but has already been and stands to be even more impacted by the Gulf BP oil spill and the perception that Gulf seafood isn’t safe.

Oliva describes ROC’s policy of taking workers’ rights directly to the consumer – and using the consumer’s market power – as an increasingly powerful model relevant to other industry sectors – a model that doesn’t just fight capitalism in the traditional Marxist sense but rather uses market forces to push for workers’ rights and reforms that benefit both the employer and the employee.



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