Unions move on restaurants despite a big oops

So what if they can’t keep a restaurant open under the very conditions they’re demanding?
Photograph: Shutterstock

Regardless of which parade marcher ends up as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, he or she is likely to be a BFF of labor. But unions aren’t waiting until next November to see if they’ll have a better shot at organizing the restaurant business. With supply and demand already tipping the balance of power in employees’ favor, labor proponents have stepped up their efforts to organize operators large and small: 2,500-unit Chipotle Mexican Grill and the eight-unit Tartine Bakery group, along with the perennial target of McDonald’s. Never mind that one of the loudest and most persuasive voices for unionization recently showed how little it actually knows about managing a successful restaurant and treating a staff.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) has commanded a special reverence because it was formed in the aftermath of 9/11 to help the workers who lost their livelihood (and many of their co-workers) when the twin towers collapsed, destroying the famed Windows on the World restaurant as well as a number of concessions in the World Trade Center. The organization grabbed the limelight with the opening of Colors, a restaurant intended to give the displaced workers a job and help persons of color rise into more lucrative and responsible positions.

After Colors opened in 2006, and even after it closed in 2017, ROC held the spotlight by cranking out research and anecdotal accounts that portrayed restaurateurs as the worst exploiters of humans since 1865. Never mind that the information didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The assertions made for good sound bites.

Yet it’s been uncharacteristically silent about the second coming of Colors, which opened in New York City in December—and closed five weeks later. The place was shut in a manner that ROC’s talented wordsmiths would have portrayed in damning fashion if it fit their publicity purposes. A directive to shut down the place was reportedly texted to the establishment’s chef during the middle of a Thursday dinner shift, with instructions that operations cease and the staff be released within three days.

The second Colors outpost, in Detroit, also shut down.

A big factor for the New York location’s demise, according to members of the city’s gossipy restaurant trade, were the high labor costs. The starting wage for servers was $15 an hour, plus tips; killing the tip credit has been a major goal of ROC. Back-of-house employees started at $18.50 an hour. With a menu of soul food specialties intended to be accessible to a broad market, the economics just didn’t make sense.

“Running a restaurant proved more difficult than protesting outside of one, and the problems piled up,” Michael Saltsman, managing director of the pro-industry Employment Policies Institute, wrote in an op-ed that ran in the New York Daily News. “If a labor advocacy organization can’t make its preferred policies work at its own restaurant, what credibility does it have to tell other restaurants to follow its lead?

The closing generated little coverage outside of New York. Not so for the efforts of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of ROC’s benefactors, to tar Chipotle as that chain is resuming its position as an industry front-runner.

Two days after the fast casual posted a same-store sales rise of 13.4% for the last quarter of 2019, the union’s New York chapter joined forces with National Consumers League, a political advocacy group, to level accusations that Chipotle is heading toward another food safety disaster like the ones that threw it into a tailspin in 2016. The allies alleged that the employer of 80,000 people was under-scheduling and forcing staff members to work despite being sick, a head-turning accusation when the world is contending with the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is leading a unionization effort by employees of four Tartine units in Northern California. A letter signed by about 140 employees of the cafes—three in San Francisco, the fourth in Berkeley—urges management to stand back and let the workers form a new chapter of the ILWU.

Though its name suggests the union usually represents workers in light industrial businesses, the ILWU is riding high after recently convincing workers in Anchor Brewing to organize.

Pundits showed in dramatic fashion during the 2016 presidential election that predicting the outcome of a political race can be a dart-board toss. No one appears any surer that they know who’ll bear the Democratic mantle in November and the chances of that candidate triumphing over Trump.

But regardless of the outcome, the industry is certain to face new efforts to organize its employees and push wages beyond a level that already has many operators yelping. The past few weeks have been an indicator, not an aberration. 

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