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How ROC - and its attempts to unionize the industry - kept it's profile high

The last thing a four-star restaurant wants to see is a picket line outside its door – especially when it’s walked by some of its employees. That was one of the tactics of Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, whose New York affiliate was suing Italian eatery Del Posto, over issues like unpaid tips and overtime.

ROC made headlines in September, when Del Posto’s owners, including celebrity chef Mario Batali, settled for $1.15 million. The restaurant denied all charges but agreed to several changes, like giving all employees three paid sick days and five paid vacation days a year.

“We give lots of credit to Batali for doing the right thing, for wanting to do better by his workers,” says co-founder Saru Jayaraman. “He’s being a great model for other employers, who may not even know how their practices are hurting their workers."

The case was classic ROC. An unconventional alternative to traditional union organizing, it’s in its eleventh year of trying to change labor policies. Its eight affiliates often target high-profile restaurants, holding them up as models of good practices or making them examples of bad ones.

For Jayaraman, the keyword is sustainability. “That’s defined,” she says, “not just as environmental sustainability or local sourcing, but the sustainability of the workforce.”

A central goal is to raise the minimum hourly wage for tipped workers, from the law’s current $2.13 up to $5, as well as $9 for non-tipped workers. “Wages lower than that, anywhere in the country, are not sustainable,” she says. “Workers have many needs, like rent, child care, transportation and putting food on the table.”

ROC gets the most notoriety for wielding sticks, like an ongoing lawsuit against Darden Restaurants. But it offers carrots, as well. This year, it published its first Diners’ Guide, which spotlights 35 “high-road” restaurants. As examples, Jayaraman cites a national group and a local independent:

  • Craft Restaurants, founded by Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio. “He provides sustainable wages to workers, and he offers paid sick days in at least some of the restaurants he operates,” she says. “One of the pieces that most impresses me is his commitment to promoting workers up the ladder from within, investing in their training.”
  • Good Girl Dinette, a Vietnamese diner in Los Angeles, where cooks and most kitchen staff start at $11 an hour. Says Jayaraman, “They prove that even small employers can do well by their workers.”

While readying ROC’s 2013 Diner’s Guide, which will double its list of high-road restaurants, Jayaraman cites a few other highlights from 2012. California Rep. George Miller introduced a bill that would raise the tipped minimum wage, in steps, to 70 percent of the regular minimum. Meanwhile, ROC’s Detroit affiliate opened a worker-run restaurant called Colors.

Despite being regarded by many as a thorn in the industry’s side, Jayaraman says that ROC sees no bad guys. “Everybody is probably doing something right, and they can do better in some other areas,” she says. “It’s a spectrum. Everybody has the potential to do better by their workers. We want them to continually strive to do better.”

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