SWEATING IN FRONT OF THE STOVE...
12 hour days, subminimum wages and low
wage unionism in the NYC restaurant industry
By Gregory A. Butler, local 608 carpenter
May Day came a day late to the union cafeteria workers at the East 42nd
St headquarters building of the United Nations.
On May 2, 2003, just before the lunch hour rush, the workers at the
diplomatic body's 5 cafeterias, members of Restaurant Workers local 100
of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union
(HERE), staged a very militant unannounced wildcat strike against the
food service contractor who operated the concessions, a company called
Office building cafeterias are at their busiest during the lunch hour.
That's when they have the bulk of their customers and that's when the
operators make the bulk of their money. Which means that the best time
to call an office building cafeteria workers strike is at lunchtime.
And that's exactly what those workers did at the UN's cafeterias.
After all food service at the diplomatic complex was cut off (even UN
Secretary General Kofi Annan couldn't get his lunch), the top brass UN
ordered the cafeterias opened, staff or no staff.
This touched off a stampede of hungry diplomats, translators and
clerical workers grabbing food and running because there was nobody to
make them pay for it.
The end result...about $ 9,000 dollars worth of food and alcohol was
stolen by the rampaging international civil servants. Reportedly,
silverware, dishes and other items walked too.
Witnesses described it to the New York Daily News as a "mob scene",
bordering on a riot.
Funny..I always thought that UN staff were supposed to STOP food
riots..not start them!
The issue in this very sudden, and breathtakingly effective, wildcat
The imminent loss of unpaid vacation time.
You see, there are 3 major office cafeteria service contractors in this
country, Restaurant Associates, Aramark and Sodexho Marriott.
Periodically, they bid against each other for service contracts..and,
in this case, Restaurant Associates lost the UN contract, after 17
years, to Aramark.
Now, the way it works is, the existing workers, no matter how much
seniority they have, start over from the bottom when a new outfit comes
in. They have to apply for their new jobs, along with people from off
the street. They lose all their seniority, all their benefits and all
their vacation time.
There is no guarantee that they will be rehired, and they may not get
the same pay or benefits or scheduled hours or working conditions they
The worker's union, HERE local 100, has tolerated this state of affairs
for a long time. The local does not have an industry-wide or even city
wide agreement for either Restaurant Associates, Aramark or Sodexho
Marriot, nor is there a citywide master contract for cafeteria workers.
Instead, they have individual agreements with each contractor at each
cafeteria, with different pay scales, vacation schedules, seniority
rules and benefits..and, when a new contractor comes in, they start off
from scratch with a brand new agreement.
Now, Restaurant Associates was trying to pull a fast one here. On the
way out, they had no intention of paying their workers vacation
pay..which would stiff these workers out of lots of money. Nor did
Aramark, the incoming contractor, have any intention of paying the
unpaid vacation time.
This pissed the workers off.
So, on a plesant Friday afternoon in May, on the last business day
before Restaurant Associates pulled out and Aramark came in..they took
a walk..at lunch hour.
It's not clear from published accounts if HERE's officers quietly
supported this walkout, or if it was organzied independently by the
guys and gals in the kitchens.
It would be surprising if local 100's officers sponsored these
efforts...they usually frown upon such displays of worker militancy.
Or, more accurately, they appear to be terrified of worker militancy.
Of course, that's precisely the kind of militancy that originally built
the unions in the hotel and restaurant industry in this city.
It is also the same kind of worker activism that would be necessary to
rebuild the HERE in New York City's restaurant and commercial food
Unfortunately, that is NOT the type of militancy normally praticed by
the HERE...ESPECIALLY in the restaurant and food service industry.
Which is why that industry in this town is almost completely non
This is a truly astonishing state of affairs, considering the fact that
this city is the cradle of culinary worker unionism in America.
The fact is, restaurant worker unionism in this country was born here
in New York over 120 years ago....and also considering the fact that
this town has over 20,000 eating places..and the largest food service
workforce in the entire USA.
The City of New York has a hell of a lot of restaurants...you name it,
we got it, from 5 star $ 100 dollar an entree places down to the
neighborhood Chinese or Mexican take out joint, where you can get a
taco or 1/2 fried chicken with beef fried rice for $ 4 bucks.
Also, there are vast cafeterias in the many office buildings that dot
Midtown Manhattan, the Financial District and the Metrotech section of
Downtown Brooklyn, cafeterias like the one in the UN building.
And , the New York City metro area's 3 Port Authority-operated
airports, John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark Liberty
International, have huge "flight kitchens" that prepare airline food
for the many jets that come into and out of our city every day.
Needless to say, a lot of New York workers toil in these
establishments..over 160,000 men and women in this town make their
livings cooking and serving food for other people.
That's really not that surprising, for two reasons.
One, New York City is the nation's # 2 tourism destination (30 million
visitors a year..only Las Vegas gets more tourists). And all those
tourists gotta eat somewhere. And it's not just tourists eating out...a
lot of high end restaurants here in the city also cater to New Yorkers
and people from nearby suburbs when they are out on the town.
And two, a lot of New Yorkers eat takeout food rather than cooking
their own meals.
This is a city with very high female labor force participation, and
lots of dual career couples and single mothers. That is, most New York
women have jobs..
Actually, the city's two leading industries, financial services and
garment manufacturing, both have predominantly female workforces. The
city government itself is the city's largest employer..and a majority
of their 330,000 workers are female.
When these women come home from work, a lot of them get takeout food to
feed their families with, to save themselves from the drudgery of
spending hours in front of a hot stove.
Also, a lot of high salaried professionals (lawyers, investment
bankers, stockbrokers ect) who live in the city work very long hours,
and, when they come home, they don't want to cook for themselves. So
they order in.
That's why this city has so many takeout restaurants and fast food
Now, you would think that, in a big "union town" like NYC, that these
establishments would be solidly wall to wall unionized.
Well, if you thought that then you thought wrong.
Over 90% of the city's food service workers are non union..including
the overwhelming majority of this town's restaurant workers.
Most of the city's unionized food workers don't even work in
restaurants at all..
They are school cafeteria workers, employed by the Department of
Education and represented by local 372, District Council 37, American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Local 372, with it's 15,000 members, is far larger than it's private
sector counterpart, local 100.
Local 100, HERE is virtually nonexistant in the city's hospitality
That's really weird, considering the fact that their sister local, HERE
Hotel Workers local 6, has 40,000 members, is the second largest local
in the entire HERE and, along with the other locals affiliated to the
New York Hotel Trades Council, represents the workers at almost every
major hotel in Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn and out by the airports in
There is a whole district of high class restaurants catering to
tourists along West 48th Street in Midtown Manhattan. This strip is
right off the Theater District, and is known as "restaurant row"..
Almost none of those establishments are union..even though local 100's
headquarters is literally around the corner at 321 West 44th St, at the
corner of 8th Av.
Just up the street from restaurant row is Times Square, which is also a
major tourist district. In all of Times Square, only two restaurants
bother to have local 100 contracts.
One of the few high profile tourist-oriented restaurants in this town
that bothered to even have a local 100 contract (and an extremely weak
one at that) was a spot called Windows on the World.
One little problem..they were on top of tower 1 of the World Trade
The entire 43 person breakfast shift at Windows either burned to death
at their stations or lept to obilivion from the establishment's 110th
floor windows when the towers were blown up.. Some of those workers
were HERE members..a lot were not, since the restaurant had an open
shop agreement with the union with no maintenance of membership clause.
The 350 folks who were off duty that morning survived, but almost all
of them lost their jobs, since all of the remaining properties
belonging to Cipriani Group, Windows on the World's owner, were non
A lot of them couldn't even get UI..because, like many restaurant
workers here, they were illegal aliens, working off the books under
fake names and bogus social security numbers. A handfull did get to
work, non union, at another Cipriani property, Noche.
At least 175 of the surviving Windows on the World workers are still
out of work today, almost 2 years later.
A lot of other hospitality workers lost their jobs behind the bombing..
The city's tourism industry took a major hit, which cost a lot of job
loss in the restaurants in Midtown Manhattan and at Kennedy and La
Guardia Airports. A lot of Financial District restaurants were either
physically blown up, or were trapped behind the police lines of the
Ground Zero Security Zone for months, or simply suffered a dropoff in
business due to the loss of foot traffic in Lower Manhattan after the
disaster. Plus, Manhattan's economy was in a general tailspin even
before the bombing, what with the stock market meltdown and the
collapse of the dot com bubble.
But, irregardless of the reason, a lot of restaurant workers lost their
jobs..and, for those who stayed employed, they suffered cuts in pay,
reduction in hours and the illegal imposition of straight time pay for
Needless to say, local 100 wasn't in a position to do anything for
these workers..they didn't even have a hiring hall to try and get them
But the Financial District and Midtown Manhattan aren't the only places
where the HERE is a nonentity in the industry.
Down in Chinatown, another big tourist spot with lots and lots of
restaurants, local 100 is totally nonexistant..
There is only one unionized restaurant in all of Chinatown..and it's
not an HERE shop.
The Silver Palace's workers are members of an independent union called
the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, which was set up by a left wing
Chinese American labor activist, one Wing Lam, and his organization,
the Chinese Staff and Workers Organization.
The same story prevails citywide...the union is nonexistant in the
kosher restaurants in the Lower East Side, the Bengali restaurants
along 6th Street in Greenwich Village, the many restaurants and bars
along 2nd Avenue in the Upper East Side, the restaurants and bars along
Broadway and Columbus Avenue in the Upper West Side, the Puerto Rican
and Cuban restaurants of East Harlem, the Muslim and soul food
restaurants of Harlem, the Cuban, Dominican and Mexican restaurants
along Broadway in West Harlem and Washington Heights ect.
And let's not even bother talking about the other boros. Brooklyn has a
huge seafood restaurant district in Sheepshead Bay - totally non union.
The Bronx also has a seafood restaurant district, on City Island -
again, totally non union. The same story prevails in Queens and Staten
Island - the HERE is a non entity.
Same thing with the city's many McDonalds, Burger Kings, White Castles
And the Irish bars that you find in just about every White neighborhood
in the city.
And the Afghan fried chicken takeout places that you find in every
Black neighborhood in New York.
And the Chinese takeout places that you find in every neighborhood,
Black, White, Latino, Indian, Korean or, of course, Chinese, in the 5
Bottom line, if you only eat in unionized restaurants in New York City,
you'd probably die of starvation before you found one.
In fact, in a recent article in Crain's New York Business, local 100
research director Brooks Bitterman actually said that they have
absolutely no interest in unionizing any of these restaurant workers.
That low key public announcement marks the end of almost a decade of
attempts by local 100 to organize a handfull of restaurants around the
The two most notable targets of that organizing drive were The Box Tree
and the 2nd Avenue Deli.
The Box Tree was originally targeted when two Bulgarian brothers opened
it as a bed-and-breakfast.
Local 100 picketed that place for quite a while...mostly with stranger
pickets and with some of the picketing bordering on harassment.
The Box Tree has since reopened as a kosher restaurant..and the HERE,
along with a shadowy group that calls itself the "Jewish Labor
Committee", are still sporadically picketing it.
Another kosher restaurant, the 2nd Avenue Deli, was targeted for
picketing in the mid 1990s.
The restaurant's owner, Abe Lebowahl, claimed the organizing drive was
really a shakedown effort.
We'll never know if Lebowahl was telling the truth or not...about a
year into the campaign, he was shot on the street and killed one day
while going to the bank.
The NYPD homicide detectives never found the killers, and the case, to
date, has not been solved.
Local 100, for reasons known only to it's officers, stopped picketing
the 2nd Avenue Deli around the same time Lebowahl was killed, and
completely abandoned that organizing drive.
Now, it seems that local 100 has quietly ended all of it's restaurant
organizing efforts..thus abandoning the city's 150,000 non union
restaurant workers to the tender mercies of their low wage non union
Apparently, the bosses of local 100 are so concerned about the alleged
financial problems of restauranteurs that they're willing to
indefinitely tolerate the subminimum wages and 12 hour straight time
workdays endemic to this sector...because, supposedly, the restaurant
owners would go broke if they actually had to pay decent wages.
The only employers that local 100 is even bothering with are the
contractors that operate the city's office building cafeterias.
As I mentioned at the top of the article, there are only 3 food service
contractors in the office cafeteria industry; Aramark, Sodexho Marriott
(yes, the same folks that own the hotels) and a British-owned firm
called Restaurant Associates. Aramark and Sodexho Marriott, along with
a firm called Chartwells, also dominate the markets for college food
services and privatized elemenatary and high school cafeterias.
Restaurant Associates, Aramark and Sodexho Marriott throughly dominate
the corporate and industrial cafeteria businesses..already have a large
pool of unionized employees (In RA's case they deal both with the HERE
over here and the Transport & General Workers Union [T&G] back in
England) and you'd think that it would be a lead pipe cinch to get a
citywide (if not nationwide) agreement for all of their properties.
Think again..this is the HERE we're talking about.
The local, typical of the HERE, has a huge staff of organizers, most of
whom are college grads who either never worked in the industry or, at
best, had part time experience as waiters, waitresses or bartenders
while they were in school.
Worse yet, in a business that's overwhelmingly Latin, Bengali and
Chinese, most of local 100's organizers are White.
And not Greek, Italian or Albanian..the White immigrant nationalities
that you would actually find waiting tables or working the kitchens in
New York restaurants, or Irish, the folks who have a major presence in
the city's bartending industry, but Jewish, an ethnic group that you
will find, in limited numbers, among the waitstaff, but, outside of the
Russian and Israeli Jews working in the kosher restaurants, you won't
find them in the kitchens.
I'm not saying that to be racial or Anti Semetic..but, bottom line,
it's very unhealthy, not to mention undemocratic, if a union's
leadership doesn't look at all like the membership does. ESPECIALLY if
a union's leadership have, for the most part, never actually worked in
the industry that they purport to represent.
And, indeed, local 100 does have organizers of color..down on Chambers
St., local 100 even has one of those "immigrant workers centers" that
are so popular with "low wage unions" these days.
It's called the Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York (ROC-NY), run
by one Saru Jayaraman, a Bengali American woman, and staffed by 6 other
ROC-NY is a spinoff of the Immigrant Workers Assistance Alliance. The
IWAA was set up with FEMA September 11th funding shortly after the
bombing as a joint venture between HERE local 100 and the city's 70,000
member building service wokers union, local 32bj of the Service
Employees International Union.
The HERE then decided to pull out of IWAA, and set up it's own federal
grant funded program.
Of course, ROC-NY's brand of "unionism" is more like social work than
labor activism, and the group functions more like a not for profit anti
poverty agency than a union.
The center, which is financed by a $ 500,000 federal grant, runs
English classes, job interview skills training and other
social-services style "job readiness" programs, although they've also
done some informational picketing. Bizarrely enough, ROC-NY's
management is actually considering opening a restaurant of their
own..which is a really strange thing for a union organizing program to
Beyond the limitations of social work unionism, there is also the
unfortunate reality that, for the most part, 100's Asian organizers
come from the same upscale college background as their White organizers
I'm not trying to say that these folks are bad people. Far from it, I'm
sure that they come to hospitality industry unionism with only the
highest and most idealistic of motives.
However, they come to the industry as outsiders, both vocationally and,
for the most part, racially.
Consequently, they don't really understand how to organize the
business, and aren't willing to let the folks that do (ie, the cooks
and waitpeople) do what they have to do.
This may in part be due to the fact that the HERE's organizers are
outsiders from relatively prosperous backgrounds.
That is, they come to restaurant union organizing with feelings of pity
and sympahty for the workers.
Problem is, when you pity someone, you look down on them.
And, if you look down on an individual (as I suspect a lot of the HERE
staff feel towards their members), even if you sympathize with them,
you are not going to treat that person as an equal, listen to their
opinions and most of all you are unlikely to let them make policy and
Also, HERE local 100 is limited in another way..ideologically.
It's leaders pratice a version of business unionism that is called "low
wage unionism". That philosophy was pioneered by the Service Employees
International Union, and, after it incubated in that union for 20
years, it has now spread, kind of like SARS, to other AFL-CIO unions,
like HERE. The virus of "low wage unionism" has now thoroghly infected
the HERE and almost all of it's locals.
Basically, unions like the HERE belive that immigrant workers of color
can only be organized by signing what amount to sweetheart contracts
with their employers, paying the lowest possible wages, as close to
minimum as legally possible.
In the case of the HERE, it's actually possible for them to pay LESS
than the minimum wage, since restaurant workers can legally be paid as
little as $ 3.30/hr, and can recieve part of their wages in the form of
food and/or customer tips.
This philosophy of unionism can also be described as "corporate
unionism" since, at the end of the day, low wage unions tend to sign
sweetheart contracts with management. Also, low wage unions tend to be
organized like totalitaran corporate state dictatorships, with the dues
paying members allowed little to no input in the policies and
strategies of the union.
Unions that pratice "low wage unionism", or "corporate unionism" like
the HERE, the SEIU and the United Food and Commercial Workers justify
their tactics by saying that they are only being "realistic"and making
what they call "winnable demands"..
In plain English, that means demands so low that the bosses won't turn
The officers of these unions, most of whom make at least $ 50,000 a
year, will claim that their members are "getting paid what their worth"
when they recieve close to minimum wage
Or, in the case of the restaurant industry, less than the minimum wage.
As I mentioned above, restaurant employers can legally engage in the
medieval practice of paying part of their kitchen workers wages in
In the case of bartenders, waiters, waitresses and other tipped
workers, they only have to recieve $ 3.30/hr in the form of pay from
the employer, the rest can be in the form of food, or based on tips
In pratice, most New York restaurants, and even some other non union
food service businesses such as supermarkets, pay all of their workers
$ 3.30/hr, even if they don't recieve tips. Also, as a rule, restaurant
workers are paid at straight time rates for all hours worked, even if
they work more than 8 hours a day, or 40 hours a week
But, that's OK, in the minds of the officers of unions like the HERE.
Because, after all, the OFFICERS of those unions don't have to live on
$ 3.30/hr..only the members do.
To summarize..this restaurant workers union is not run by restaurant
This probably explains the rather ineffective tactics that they use.
The Restaurant Associates campaign dragged on for years, and was marked
by lots of informational picketing, leafleting (they even went to
London to leaflet RA's annual corporate shareholders meeting along with
the T&G), and lots and lots of activities aimed at shaming RA into
"doing the right thing".
All that shameful begging ignored one reality of capitalism..for a
corporation like Restaurant Associates, "doing the right thing" means
maximizing shareholder rate of return on investment..by any means
So, what was the end result of that campaign at RA?
Not much....with the exception of the United Nations Building, and the
Goldman Sachs Building at 85 Broad Street, most of the city's office
building cafeterias are still non union.
As we saw at the top of the article, the HERE couldn't even stop
Restaurant Associates from unilaterally stealing it's members vacation
time when they lost the food service contract to Aramark. It's also
unclear how Aramark will deal with the union now that they've taken
possession of the concession.
And, the organized cafeterias still have seperate contracts, with
seperate expiration dates. Some of the workers did get a 50 cent raise,
and I guess that's something..not much, but something.
That's assuming that these workers actually get their 50 cent raise.
And, in an industry filled with off the books illegal aliens, using
false identities and fake social security numbers, and working for
cash, it's not clear how many workers are even getting paid union
Now, as I showed above, and as we'll see in more detail below, the most
effective way to unionize restaurant workers is, basically, shutting
down the kitchens and taking it to the streets. There have been two
ways that worked, either through unnanounced wildcat strikes at
individual properties, or through massive areawide strikes that shut
down every restaurant in a metropolitan area.
That's how restaurant worker unionism was born in New York back in the
1880's, that's how the great organizing drives of World War I and the
1930's were carried out, and, as the UN cafeteria wildcat strike
clearly showed, those tactics would still work today.
After all, somebody's got to cook the food, and somebody's got to serve
If diners are sitting at their tables with nothing to eat, getting more
and more pissed off by the minute, while expensive steaks are burning
up on the now untended grill...that WILL get the restaurant owner's
undivided attention with a quickness.
But that kind of worker militancy is a little too hardcore for the
bosses of today's HERE..not to mention the fact that wildcat strikes
are, by defintion, led by the workers themselves, and by leaders drawn
from among the ranks of the workers.
There's really no room for Organizing Institute-trained professional
organizers in that equasion.....
That also explains HERE's failures in another sector of the food
service industry..the sky kitchens.
Out at JFK, La Guardia and Newark Airports, there are these huge
commercial kitchens run by a German-owned firm called LSG SkyChef, a
wholly owned subsidiary of Lufthansa Airlines.
LSG SkyChef actually is wall to wall union.
This is because, as an airline firm, they are covered by the Railway
That means that every one of the 10,000 food service workers in the
company is in one vast systemwide bargaining unit, represented by HERE.
The parent company, Lufthansa, is 100% union too..the Internantional
Association of Machinists represents their ground crew on this side of
the Atlantic, and back home their ground crew (including the food
service workers at LSG SkyChef ) as well as their flight attendants are
represented by the German United Service Sector Union, < Vereinte
Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft > [Ver.di] and the pilots are in the
German Cockpit Union, < Vereinigung Cockpit > [VC].
Lufthansa's English workers are union too..they're members of the
Transport & General Workers Union [T&G]. LSG SkyChef's British workers
are also in T&G, and, as I mentioned above, another multinational food
service contractor, Restaurant Associates, also has it's United Kingdom
facilities unionized by T&G.
In fact, except for really repressively anti union places like Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates, if Lufthansa flies there,
odds are, their ground crew and flight kitchen staff have some kind of
But still, the HERE has been working without a contract for over 4
years..and LSG treats it's workers like shit..8 hour shifts with no
chance to eat or use the bathroom, sexual harassment, speedup in the
kitchens and all other sorts of labor abuses. LSG has even started
calling immigration on it's workers, even though, like everybody else
in the food service game, they have been knowingly hiring illegal
aliens for years.
And the union lets them do this..even though all they'd have to do to
get Lufthansa's undivided attention would be to shut the kitchens down
at 8AM any weekday morning..or, if they REALLY wanted Lufthansa's full
undivided attention, shut the kitchens down at 8AM on Thanksgiving Day,
or Memorial Day, or any other big 3 day holiday weekend.
The bulk of air travel is right around 9AM.
In particular, that's when businesspeople like to fly.
Because of the fact that so many planes are trying to take off in that
limited window of time, FAA takeoff and landing slots for the AM hours
are very rigidly scheduled.
In other words, those planes have got to taxi out to the runway on
schedule, wheather they have food in the galleys or not.
And there's nothing quite as unmanagable as a plane full of hungry and
irritable passengers on a long flight.
Airlines don't like to see hungry angry frequent fliers..that kind of
thing could cause them to lose repeat business...and that would lead
them to lean on Lufthansa and LSG SkyChef to resolve their beef with
the food service workers ASAP.
And, if LSG SkyChef did NOT resolve those labor issues in a timely
fashion...well, they're not the only airline food service contractor
Ogden Allied or Gate Gourmet would be more than happy to take LSG's
business away from them...and that's exactly what would happen if a lot
of passengers on high revenue generating flights had to take off with
no food aboard.
But, again, that would involve struggle at the point of
production..something the bosses of the HERE are deeply uncomfortable
with. Hell, they're probably scared..and no, not because they might get
sued (HERE has a long mobbed up history, which I'll go into in more
detail below...they've got lawyers, good ones, lots of them, they can
handle a suit or an injunction).
What they really fear is letting the membership have that kind of
power...because, if the members really felt it was their union..they
might not necessarily want outsiders to run it.
And, from International President John "Kaiser" Wilhelm on down, the
HERE is run by.....oustiders, folks who have never actually been
employed permanently, full time, year round, in any HERE-represented
hospitality industry craft.
Well, that's not entirely true...allegedly, "Kaiser" Wilhelm worked as
a part time server at the Yale University cafeteria for a semester when
he was a student there 35 years ago. So, I guess he can claim that he's
a restaurant worker too..sort of, even though he never was a full time
professional restaurant worker.
Even if "Kaiser" Wilhelm did actually work in that college cafeteria so
many years ago, other waitpeople don't think very highly of him.
Dissident banquet waiters in Chicago gave him that nickname,
"Kaiser"..because, like the former German Emperor Wilhelm I, John
Wilhelm is an unaccountable dictator.
Unfortunately, "Kaiser" Wilhelm is on the short list to suceed John
Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO.
This is, supposedly, because Wilhelm is such a great organizer.
I'm not so sure about that myself.....back in 1975, the HERE had
By 1999, only 229,000.
How did the HERE's leadership get so hopelessly out of touch with the
men and women in front of the stoves and on the dining room floor?
It's a long sad story..of a union that was once a template for how a
revolutionary union should operate, was later hijacked by some really
vile and degenerate gangster unionists, and later on was taken over by
corporate unionists, who's long term goal is to make the HERE a
subminimum wage union, "organizing" by signing sweetheart contracts.
I've written about the degeneration of the Hotel Employees and
Restaurant Employees International Union, and that union's failure to
fight for casino workers, on GANGBOX before, at :
Now, let's explore how they betrayed the restaurant workers of New York
What's really ironic is the fact that New York City was the cradle of
hospitality industry unionism back in the late 19th century.
Like many AFofL unions at that time, the early years of the Hotel &
Restaurant Employees Union were filled with what, at the time, were
known as "trade movements"..that is, areawide general strikes to
unionize a particular craft, in this case, restaurant cooks and
In those days, union conditions didn't depend on a collective
bargaining agreement with the employers, but, instead, were set by work
rules, unilaterally imposed on the bosses by the unions, and enforced
by worker militancy on the jobs.
At the time, unions were illegal, and were viewed by the courts as
criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.
But, ironically enough, in that pre-NLRB era, the restaurant unions
were a hell of a lot stronger than they are today.
There's a book, called "Battling for American Labor" by Howard
Kimmeldorf, published by the University of California Press, that
documents the struggles of New York restaurant workers in great detail.
Much of the historical info below comes from Professor Kimmeldorf's
very informative work.
In 1885, a group of socialist German Jewish waiters and bartenders
organized the city's first culinary workers union, Local Lodge 8742 of
the utopian socialist Loyal Order of the Knights of Labor.
However, there was a little problem...the KofL was in favor of
prohibition..that is, the banning of the production and sale of
alcohol. Since most of Local 8742's members were employed at places
that sold liquor, this caused a conflict.
Local 8742 folded in 1888, and it's members drifted into a newly
chartered federal local (local independent union) of the American
Federation of Labor, Local 281. The AFofL, unlike the KofL, didn't have
a problem with folks who sold liquor... Local 281's officers called a
national convention 3 years later, and, along with delegates from
waiters and bartenders local unions in Brooklyn and New Jersey, founded
what was then known as the Hotel and Restaurant Employees National
Alliance..the direct ancestor of today's HERE.
New York's local 281 got a new designation..it became Local 1 of the
new union. The HERE began chartering local unions all over the country,
as well as in the New York City area.
However, within a few years, local 1's socialist officers came into
conflct with the business unionist elements who'd come to power in the
HERE locals in Chicago and other midwestern cities.
Also, locally, within New York City, local 1 and the other HERE locals
only represented a narrow section of the restaurant workforce..the
city's biggest restaurants, as well as the hotels, remained almost
totally non union.
This led to the emergence of the first of many independent hospitality
industry unions in the city. That was the grandiosely named
International Hotel Workers Union (IHWU), founded by socialist German
Jewish immigrant Joseph Vehling, and, as it's name implies, mainly
based in Manhattan's major hotels.
Unlike the HERE, Vehling's organization also included kitchen staff, as
well as waiters and bartenders.
His group, like the HERE at the time, did NOT include female hotel
workers, such as housekeepers. This would later be a problem, as we'll
see below, where hotel owners would use female workers as scabs on
striking male cooks and waiters.
Vehling was more conservative than the socialists who ran Local 1,
HERE..he didn't belive in strikes, and thought the solution to hotel
workers problems was filing lawsuits against the hotels.
In any event, the HERE's response to the establishment of the IHWU was
the chartering of yet another local...Hotel Workers Local 5, which
promptly started trying to organize in the luxury hotels in Manhattan
where Vehling's union had it's main base.
All this rising union activism bubbled up to the surface on the dining
room floor of the Belmont Hotel in May, 1911.
The spark that set that dispute off began when 50 waiters marched in
IHWU's contingent in the Socialist Party's May Day parade in Union
Square. The next day, the Maitre'd of the restaurant at the Belmont
Hotel fired two of the waiters who'd marched in that parade.
This really pissed off the other waiters, who wanted to go on strike to
get the two men rehired, and to get that Maitre'd fired. There were
other greivances too...like an elaborate system of fines that the
Maitre'd could deduct from a waiter's meager wages at will for petty
"offenses" like "smiling in the dining room" or "dropping a spoon".
Vehling tried to talk them into going to court..but, the guys didn't
want to waste time with a lawsuit, they wanted their greivances
So, on May 8, at exactly 7:15PM (the height of the dinner hour rush)
the shop stewards at the Belmont blew whistles..and 100 waiters walked
out on strike. The demands..abolition of the fines, firing of the
Maitre'd, reinstatement of the fired waiters and an independent review
of future discipline.
Within days, the strike had spread to the Waldorf-Astoria, the
Vanderbilt, and the Knickerbocker Hotels and a brushfire of labor
activism swept the dining rooms of New York's luxury hotels. The
owners of the Manhattan, the Gotham and the Astor actually conceded to
the unions demands without a fight, fearing that they'd be struck too.
Other hotel workers got in the mix too, including the cooks, who had
greivances of their own against the hotels...14 hour days, 7 day
workweeks, $ 35 a month salaries, having to supply their own knives,
pots and pans and very unsafe working conditions in the hot, wet,
poorly ventilated and infrequently cleaned kitchens.
Restaurant workers were getting involved too...and wildcat strikes
swept the kitchens and dining rooms of the city's finest eating
Unfortunately, there was one problem..the HERE refused to join in the
IHWU's strike..or even to donate money to their strike fund. By June,
the IHWU's strike collapsed, because the hotel and restaurant owners
had managed to replace the strikers with scabs.
The IHWU retreated..and the employers took back all the concessions
they'd made during the strike. But, the IHWU came back again, with a
surprise citywide strike called on New Years Eve 1912. However, the
IHWU's leaders were only able to spread the strike to a small number of
But, worker activists, with a little help from the Industrial Workers
of the World, were able to pick up the slack in early January 1913, and
a wave of wildcat strikes quickly swept hotels and restaurants in
Midtown and Downtown Manhattan.
IWW militants like Elizbeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, Joseph Ettor
and Arturo Giovannitti were now leading the strike. They demanded an 8
hour day, a $ 20 a week minimum wage for waiters and the banning of
"vampires"...employment agencies that charged restaurant workers a
month's wages in return for a job.
Under IWW leadership, the hotel and restaurant workers engaged in
militant mass picketing. Strikers fought in the streets with the NYPD
and brass knuckle and blackjack-equipped private security guards hired
by the hotels.
Unfortunately, the strikers were defeated by the restauranteurs and
hotel owners, aided by the brass knuckled thugs and nightstick swinging
cops. The 14 hour day rapidly returned, along with $ 15 a month wages
and other abusive working conditions.
However, despite the defeat on the streets of Manhattan, the IWW was
able to maintain a toehold in the food service industry, by sucessfully
organizing Italian bakers in Brooklyn, who sucessfully were able to
preserve very strong union conditions (including a 7 1/2 hour day and
union selection of foremen) in their shops up until 1920.
Unionists influenced by IWW-style revolutionary unionism set up a new
food service industry union in 1916. Initially known as the
International Federation of Workers in the Hotel and Restaurant
Industry, the union went through a rapid series of name changes and
eventually came to be called the Amalgamated Food Workers Union.
The AFWU not only organized hotel and restaurant employees, (in
particular, cooks and other kitchen workers) but also reached out to
workers in other sectors of the food service industry, such as
cafeterias, delis, bakeries and and lunchrooms. Meanwhile, the HERE
retained it's foothold among waiters in hotels and high class
The unions experienced a strong upsurge after America entered World War
I in 1917. The draft drained the surplus of labor in the restaurant and
hotel industries, and the unions were able to use that labor shortage
to their advantage.
In October 1918, the AFWU called a strike at three Manhattan hotels,
the Waldorf-Astoria, McAlpin and Claridge, demanding a $ 15 per week
minimum wage for all restaurant workers - which, if granted, would have
been a 300% raise.
The hotel owners tried to get the government to order the strikers back
to work, and even threatened them with being drafted into the Army. The
newspapers also attacked the strikers as "enemy aliens", since many of
them were immigrants from Germany and Austria-Hungary, countries which
America was at war with at the time.
Due to the war, there was a shortage of unemployed males to hire as
scabs. This forced the hotelsto break down the industry's traditional
sex segregation, and hire women strikebreakers to work as scab cooks
This made picketing difficult for the AFWU..their members, mostly male,
were used to dealing with male scabs by beating them up..and they
really couldn't do that to women scabs.
Another problem the AFWU had to deal with was the HERE. The HERE
waiters local quietly supported the strike..but, the HERE international
openly tried to sabotage it. The HERE even went so far as to rat out
the union to the federal government, and inform on AFWU activists who
were anarchists, socialists or IWW's.
Meanwhile, the strike spread to the rest of the hotel industry...and,
after Thanksgiving 1918, was spread to Manhattan's restaurants.
Unfortunately, in the face of government repression and sabotage from
the HERE, the union was forced to retreat. After an attempt at a
general strike on New Year's Eve 1918 failed, the AFWU's strike
However, both the AFWU and HERE launched very ambitious organizing
drives in the wake of this defeated strike. The AFWU went after
cafeteria workers..and the HERE went after cooks. Also, for the first
time, the HERE seriously tried to recruit female workers - waitresses.
The HERE punctuated it's organizing efforts among women workers in the
restaurant industry by calling a general strike of waitresses in low
and midpriced restaurants in August 1919.
The AFWU was even more sucessful in it's organizing efforts..by late
1919, they had 15,000 members.
Despite these limited sucesses, the bulk of the hospitality industry in
New York remained non union for the next decade.
The HERE in particular began to have a major problem, a plague which
still affects it to this day. That is, gangster unionism.
The federal government banned the sale of alcohol in 1918, a policy
called "Prohibition". That ban on liquor sales immediately created a
black market, which came to be dominated by organized gangsters.
This brought racketeers into the hospitality industry in a big way..in
particular, one Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenheimer, the city's biggest
"bootlegger" (alcohol smuggler).
Once in the industry, Flegenheimer wanted to make sure that they had
unfair competitive advantages over the legitimate restauranteurs. Also,
they wanted to make sure that they had unusually low labor costs. Plus,
Dutch Schultz also wanted to make his competitors pay him for "labor
peace"...and be able to cause labor troubles at the businesses of those
who wouldn't pay him tribute.
This led Flegenheimer to seek to dominate the HERE in New York..and, in
a short period of time, thanks to tactics like union "elections" held
at gunpoint, Dutch Schultz came to dominate the HERE here.
But, unfortunately for Arthur Flegenheimer, and fortunately for New
York restaurant workers, the HERE was not the only union in the
The AFWU, many of who's leaders had, at this point, joined the
Communist Party, USA, led a militant strike in 1929 among restaurant
workers in the Garment District. They engaged in militant mass
picketing, aided by garment workers represented by the Communist-led
Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union.
Shamefully, the now gangster dominated HERE tried to break that strike,
by signing bogus "union contracts" with the owners of the struck
restaurants. In 1930, the AFWU led a strike against one of these HERE
raids at an establishment called the Moon Cafeteria. The AFWU strikers
were able to force the restaurant to close, by entering it, and busting
up all the dishes and tables.
The Communist-led restaurant workers ended up leaving the AFWU, and
setting up a new union, called the Food Workers Industrial Union
[FWIU]. The FWIU didn't just organize hotel, restaurant and cafeteria
workers, it also included other food service trades, like bakers and
The hotel operators and restauranteurs hated the FWIU, and frequently
attacked the union, with assistance from the cops and the court system.
The HERE tried to raid this union too, and often colluded with
employers to sign sweetheart contracts behind the backs of the FWIU
members employed in the establishments. FWIU frequently called strikes
against HERE raiding and unionbusting.
In 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, newly elected
president Franklin D. Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration set
up "industry codes" governing labor relations and trade pratices in
every branch of the US economy.
Problem was, the restaurant industry code tried to reimpose 19th
century non union conditions on restaurant workers..a 54 hour workweek,
split shifts and a 28 cent minimum wage for kitchen help.
This government attack on restaurant workers shocked many food service
employees into action, and caused thousands of workers to flood into
all 3 unions, the HERE, AFWU and FWIU.
The restaurant workers at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (who, as I've shown
above, spearheaded a lot of the most militant strike actions in the
industry over the years) launched a strike, after the Maitre'd had
tried to herd them into a company union.
The gangster unionists of the HERE openly tried to break the strike. By
contrast, the FWIU tried to expand the strike to the entire industry.
Unfortunately, the AFWU leadership settled the strike on terms imposed
by the federal government's mediators.
That was not a very popular decision, and it cost the AFWU's officers
their jobs. The AFWU membership rebelled, elected new, pro Communist,
officers, who ended up merging the AFWU with the FWIU. The newly
expanded FWIU then proceeded to launch a major organizing drive in the
Which ran head on into the protection racket run by Dutch Schultz.
Flegenheimer and his men used HERE locals 16 and 302, and the
Metropolitan Restaurant and Cafeteria Association, to shake down
restauranteurs for protection money. In exchange for signing with the
HERE, and joining the MRCA, employers would be protected from having to
deal with the radical FWIU.
Problem was, this racket was starting to unravel from both ends. From
the bottom, workers were surging into the FWIU, and, from the top,
restaurant owners got tired of paying off Dutch Schultz.
This led to a New York County District Attorney initiated criminal
investigation of Flegenheimer, waiters and waitresses local 16
President Harry Koenig and cafeteria workers local 302 President Max
This created real problems for the HERE international. They were afriad
of the investigation wrecking two of their largest local unions.
At this point, the Communists decided they wanted to merge the FWIU
with the HERE.
This was part of a national Communist Party initiative in 1936 to merge
all of their independent unions with mainstream AFofL unions.
Communist led independent unions in a number of industries (maritime,
coal mining, metal mining, the fur industry, the leather industry, the
garment industry, electrical manufacturing, the auto industry and the
New York subway system among others) also were being merged with or
absorbed into their AFofL counterparts.
This was part of an effort by the Communists to build a "popular front"
of workers from all political backgrounds to fight against the growing
threat of fascism. The idea was to unite all unionized workers in the
AFofL and to push the American Federation of Labor to unionize non
And the restaurant industry would be no exception to this plan.
The HERE international welcomed this merger..the militancy and honesty
of the Communist led local unions would take some of the heat from law
enforcement off of the HERE's corrupt New York locals.. Besides, Koenig
and Pincus had just about outlived their usefulness for the union.
And I DO mean "outlived".
Harry Koenig, the president of waiters and waitresses local 16, was
actually murdered during a session of the HERE international convention
in Rochester later that year. Despite the fact that he was shot in a
crowded room, nobody would admit seeing who did the shooting. Koenig
himself didn't die right away, but, before he passed, he also refused
to tell the cops who the shooter was.
Max Pincus, the president of cafeteria workers local 302, didn't stick
around long enough for the hitmen to get him. Facing a grim future that
involved the near certainty of a jail term and/or being the recipient
of a mob hit, Pincus killed himself.
Meanwhile, FWIU waiters and waitresses local 119 was merged into HERE
waiters and waitresses local 16, and FWIU cafeteria local 110 also
merged with HERE cafeteria local 302. Eventually, locals 16 and 302 in
turn were merged..into what became HERE restaurant workers local 100.
Meanwhile, in the hotel segment of the industry, HERE hotel workers
local 6 had, in 1934, compelled all of the city's major hotels, as well
as many smaller motels, to recognizing the union.
And, for the first time, hotel workers like bellmen and maids, the
majority of the hotel workforce, were included as well as waiters and
The hotels also ended up signing agreements with other AFofL unions who
had jurisdiction over other crafts in the hotels (electricians,
carpenters, stationary engineers, security guards ect). Those trades,
along with HERE local 6, were united in the New York Hotel/Motel Trades
The Communists, along with most hospitality workers, rightly considered
these to be great victories. Virtually the entire hospitality industry
had been organized, from one end to the other, and they were all united
in one union, the AFofL's Hotel & Restaurant Employees International
The Communists felt that dissolving their independent union, the Food
Workers Industrial Unioni, was a small price to pay to achieve this
Unfortunately, in the long run, the Communists were wrong about that.
It had appeared that gangster unionism was dead in the hotel and
Harry Koenig and Max Pincus were dead..and they were soon joined in
Hell by Arthur "Dutch Schultz" Flegenheimer himself.
Flegenheimer had come up with an ill concieved plan to beat his
racketeering indictment by killing New York County District Attorney,
and rising Republican Party politician, Thomas E. Dewey. Other
gangsters had serious problems with that idea, in particular Charles
"Lucky" Luciano and the other Italian American mobsters in < la cosa
nostra > - the Mafia.
They resolved these problems with Flegenheimer by having him killed,
along with all of his associates.
Appropriately enough for a restaurant industry racketeer..he was shot
and killed in a restaurant, the Palace Chophouse in Newark, New Jersey.
Dutch Schultz' death didn't mean that gangsterism had left the
Far from it..it just meant that there were a different set of gangsters
coming in to take over.
And, unfortunately for generations of restaurant workers from that day
to this, < la cosa nostra > were alot better organized and had greater
staying power then Flegenheimer and the Jewish gangsters ever did.
Within a few years, the Communist restaurant workers who'd built what
became HERE local 100 were forced out of it. The same situation
happened in the hotel local, HERE local 6.
The decline of the Communist Party in the HERE accelerated during World
Communist leaders, in the name of building a united front against
fascism, ordered their members in labor unions to avoid confrontations
with union officials at all costs.
This meant that Communist restaurant workers were unable to effectively
stand up for their coworkers and stop the gangster unionist takeover of
By the 1950's, the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees locals in New
York were more throughly gangster dominated than ever.
This was bad for the hotel workers..but it was catastrophic for
restaurant and food service employees.
< La Cosa Nostra > preferred to keep a finger in the hotel business by
dominating the union.. Also, the hotels tend to be very large
bargaining units..and it's very difficult to deunionize hundreds of
workers without their consent.
Because of that, that industry stayed heavily unionized, and, local 6
more or less had to take care of their hotel sector membership.
Local 6 even expanded during the 1950's, as the hotel business grew in
Midtown Manhattan and out in Queens, around La Guardia Airport and what
was then Idlewild Field (today's Kennedy Airport).
But, in the restaurant industry, the wiseguys had a totaly different
They basically used the threat of unionization as a stick to gain
payoffs from non union restauranteurs. On the union side, they used the
promise of unopposed deunionization as a carrot to gain payoffs from
union restaurant owners.
As restaurants tend to be very small bargaining units, they're easier
to deunionize..either through decertification, or simply through a
restaurant closing under one name..and reopening, non union, under
As for the houses that stayed unionized.....in many cases, they were
"union" in name only, with sweetheart contracts that the workers never
got to even vote on, let alone read.
There were other competitors in the sweetheart contract field, of
There were a number of Mafia-dominated local unions of the Teamsters
and Allied Industrial Workers also signing sweetheart contracts (for
example, well into the 1980's, Restaurant Associates's United Nation's
cafeterias were "represented" by a bogus local of the Allied Industrial
Workers). Also, there were numerous "independent unions" that also
signed sweetheart contracts.
One of those mobbed up "independent unions" was an outfit called the
International Production, Service and Sales Employees Union, (IPPSEU)
which was actually absorbed by the HERE in 1983, sweetheart contracts
This led to a long term decline in local 100 and restaurant industry
unionism. By the 1980's, the sweetheart contract racket wasn't nearly
as sucessful...for the crudely simple reason that there were so few
unionized eating places that restauranteurs no longer feared
unionization, and the supposed purpose of the payoffs was no longer
At this point, law enforcement stepped in. Local 100's extortion
schemes, besides no longer being viable, were also really starting to
annoy the business community here.
They got tired of being shaken down, (especially since, due to the
decline of local 100 in the restaurant industry, the payoffs didn't
really "protect" the restauranteurs from the non existant threat of
unionization) and leaned on the government to do something about it.
This eventually led to local 100 being taken into international
At the time, HERE's international also had gone through a lot of
changes related to racketeering. President Edward T. Hanley had just
"retired" one step ahead of a federal racketeering investigation. And
Hanley had reason to be worried...reportedly, he was annointed as head
of the HERE by one Anthony Accardo, boss of the largest Mafia family in
the country, the Chicago Outfit.
To keep the feds at bay, John "Kaiser" Wilhelm, the newly appointed
HERE president, put local 100 in trusteeship. Wilhelm, a former 1960's
college radical picked to run the union because of his "leftist" past,
picked another former student activist, one Henry Tamarin, as
international trustee, to give the appearance that local 100 had
Tamarin set about cleaning out the mob connected guys from local 100's
leadership, and replacing them with college grads with leftist
backgrounds who had minimal to nonexistant work experience in the
industry. But, just like his predecessors, he kept the union's
leadership overwhelmingly White, despite the fact that the industry is
largely Latino and Chinese.
Tamarin also launched a couple of rather dubious "organizing drives" at
the Box Tree and the Second Avenue Deli, that I talked about above. Of
course, as I mentioned at the top of the article, the local has now
totally abandoned all attempts to organize the restaurant industry, and
is solely concentrating on corporate cafeterias and sky kitchens.
Tamarin was also replaced as the local's top officer..the local's
principal officer is now Secretary-Treasurer Bill Granfield.
Even in the sector of the food service industry that local 100 bothers
to organize, that is, cafeterias, they have a relentlessly NLRB-driven
strategy that has caused the union lots of problems. Organizing drives
that could probably be wrapped up in weeks with recognition strikes
drag on year after year after year in the federal court system.
Beyond that, local 100, like many SEIU-style "low wage unions", tends
to rely on "public opinion" rather than the strength of it's members in
the kitchens and dining roooms.
Instead of simply doing what the workers did at the UN..that is, taking
their power in their hands, shutting down the cafeteria at 11AM, and
just standing aside and letting very expensive chaos ensue as legions
of hungry white collar workers bumrush the cafeterias and take food
without paying, the union presents it's members as pitable wretches,
and begs white collar folks to feel sorry for them.
Ironically enough, HERE's propaganda is NOT aimed at the cafeteria
customers who might have some economic and social kinship with
cafeteria workers..that is, the clerical workers from the "pink collar
Office workers in New York are largely female, and predominantly Black
or Latina. They live in the same neighborhoods as cafeteria workers,
their kids go to the same schools and they actually have a hell of a
lot in common with them. They would, quite naturally, feel a lot of
sympahty for their sisters and brothers behind the counters.
Of course, worker to worker solidarity (ESPECIALLY worker to worker
solidarity between workers of color, in particular women workers of
color) is just not the HERE way... That kind of thing makes the HERE
officers deeply uncomfortable.
Nor is the HERE's public relations materials aimed at the unionized
blue collar workers who not only eat at the cafeterias, but also work
side by side with the cafeteria workers. That is, the building service
workers in local 32bj of the SEIU, the unionized carpenters,
electricians, laborers and painters who do maintenance and furniture
installation jobs in these office buildings, and the unionized
teamsters who make deliveries to and pick up garbage from these
Those workers also have a kinship to the cafeteria workers.
Instead, most HERE propaganda is aimed at the folks LEAST LIKELY to
feel solidarity with their members.. That is, highly paid (and
overwhelminly White and male) corporate executives, and other rich
Needless to say, that audience feel little if any sympathy with the
The HERE had a similar experience at Lincoln Center, the complex of
state owned but privately operated opera houes and concent halls on
Manhattan's Upper West Side.
A few years ago, they tried to unionize the Restaurant
Associates-operated employee cafeterias and food service concessions at
Now, as it happens, most of the workers who eat at these cafeterias are
actually union members.
The musicians who perform at the center are members of local 802 of the
American Federation of Musicians, the actors are members of the Actor's
Equity Association, the stagehands who build, install and take down the
sets are members of Stagehands local 1 of the International Alliance of
Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and the porters who clean the
theaters are members of local 32bj of the Service Employees
International Union. Like the office building cafeterias, there are
also lots of non union clerical workers who eat at those cafeterias
Did the HERE appeal to these workers?
Of course not.
Instead, the HERE focused on trying to "shame" Lincoln Center, by
leafletting the rich people who attend operas, ballets recitals and
classical music performances at the facility. Also, local 100's staff
used their contacts at the New York Times (the newspaper that most rich
folks read in New York City) to get sympathetic (and condescending)
news stories put in the paper about the "plight" of the poor, pathetic
Needless to say, the campaign was a dismal failure.
RA simply got it's regiments of high priced labor lawyers to drag the
organizing campaign through the NLRB and the federal courts, where the
campaign is still tied up to this day. They even got a court order to
stop the HERE leafletting of concertgoers in the large plaza in between
the Lincoln Center theaters.
Meanwhile the Lincoln Center audiences (upscale, and predominantly
White, folks who, for the most part, have absolutely nothing in common
with the poor, and largely Latino, HERE membership) continued going to
events as if nothing was going on.
Of course, if the HERE had simply called a wildcat strike on a day when
a major performance was supposed to start...and, threw a picketline
around the entrances used by the employees, and, more importantly, the
loading docks that the Teamster-driven trucks that deliver the sets and
other supplies enter through, it would have, most likely, been a quick
The center and the producers who put on performances there would not
have been able to open the doors if the actors, musicians and
stagehands wouldn't work..and if the deliveries never made in in the
That would have led to literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in
refunds....and a lot of very pissed off rich people, many of whom buy
their tickets months, and even years, in advance.
And those kind of high dollar losses, and complaints from influential
customers, would get the full undivided attention of Lincoln Center
management with a quickness.
A few angry phone calls later, and RA's lawyers would have barely had
time to open their breifcases before the company would have had to
settle with local 100.
The lesson here...local 100's strategy of begging rich people for
crumbs is useless..all it gets the union, and, more importantly, the
workers, is contempt and injunctions.
However, if the cafeterias were to, with little to no advanced warning,
drop the spatulas and pick up picket signs, they'd force contractors
like RA, Sodexho Marriott, Aramark and Chartwells to bargain with them.
That strategy, of course, would have to be based on reminding the
workers of their power, and having them unleash that power. And the
union bosses just cannot allow that.
After all, those empowered workers might just try to take over the
union..and dispense with the dubious leadership of the Organizing
Beyond that, there's another reason why it's a really bad idea for the
HERE to rely on a legalistic strategy.
A LARGE PROPORTION OF THE INDUSTRY'S WORKFORCE ARE ILLEGAL ALIENS.
This means that going through governmental channels might just lead to
members ending up in the leg irons of the Bureau of Immigration and
Customs Services and taking an unscheduled one way plane trip back home
on a Justice Department-chartered prisoner transport plane.
Some restaurant workers might face an even worse fate. A lot of
restaurant workers in New York are immigrants from Bangladesh, a
largely Muslim country on the eastern border of India.
And, ever since September 11th, Bengali men, like all male Muslim
immigrants, have been required to register with the Bureau of
Immigration and Customs Services.
Those who don't are likely to be detained by the Department of Homeland
Security as "terrorists".
Of course, there's a Catch 22. Those Bengali men who DO register are
also...likely to be detained by the Department of Homeland Security as
Needless to say, for Bengali men in New York today..it's a really bad
idea to attract too much attention from the federal government. A lot
of them have actualy fled to Canada, fearing, with good reason, that
the US government might start detaining all Muslim immigrants. Those
who remain are keeping their heads down.
The same applies to the Albanian men who work in many of the city's
pizzerias. Many of them are Muslim too, and, although they don't have
to register with the government, they also have a well founded fear of
detention and/or deportation.
And, of course, the Afghan men who work in the many fried chicken
takeout places in the city's Black neighborhoods (Kennedy Fried
Chicken, Kansas Fried Chicken, Church's Fried Chicken ect) are also in
fear of detention and/or deportation..especially since America, under
the pretext of "fighting terrorism", invaded their homeland and
detained thousands of their countrymen in October 2001.
Even non-Muslim illegal immigrants from places like Mexico, Ecuador and
El Salvador are reluctant to stick their heads up and attract too much
attention from the government. The feds have abandoned the pre 9/11
proposal of an "amnesty" for illegal aliens from Latin America, and
there have even been a number of raids and deportations against these
There's another problem as well.
It's called a "no match letter".
Ever since the bombing, the feds have been cracking down on people
using fake social security numbers.
So, if an employer sends in social security contributions, and the name
on the contribution doesn't match the name assigned to that social
security number, or the social security number itself is invalid, then
the US Social Security Administration sends out a "no match letter",
notifying the employer of the discrepancy.
Now, of course, in an industry like food service, the bosses know
damned well that many of their workers are in fact illegal aliens. Many
restauranteurs exclusively hire illegal aliens to work the kitchens
and, in fact, will not hire American citizen or legal immigrant workers
for those jobs.
And I'm not just talking about the neighborhood Chinese takeout spot or
Pizza shop here. Major players like LSG SkyChef, Ogden Allied, Gate
Gourmet, Chartwells, Aramark, Sodexho Marriott, Restaurant Associates,
Cipriani Group, Towers on the Park and the Tavern on the Green all have
longstanding de facto policies of hiring illegal alien kitchen workers.
So, when they get these no match letters,and, in effect, get busted
committing social security fraud, their reaction is to fire the worker
in question, so they won't get charged.
Needless to say, a lot of illegal aliens have lost their jobs behind
these no match letters.
Perhaps that explains why local 100 has abandoned all effort to
organize restaurant workers...maybe they realize that these workers are
not going to stick their necks out, and end up going to a federal
detention center, or getting a plane ride home in leg irons.
This could also make it harder to organize wildcat strikes....but,
actually, these workers would be better off if they fought back.
The reality is, workers who fight back collectively are less likely to
be rounded up individually and deported.
The last thing the government wants is social tension and labor strife
at home in the middle of a major war, especially an open ended war with
no clear front line like the one we're in now.
Also, it's essential that the restaurant workers reach out to their
natural allies...New York City's 1 million unionized Black, White and
US citizen Latino workers, in particular teamtsters, building trades
and building service workers, as well as the city's 500,000+ non union,
largely Black and Latina, "pink collar" workforce.
Those are the folks who would be able to back up these workers, and
who, in turn, could be backed up by the food service workers. Also,
many White and American Black workers, and even some US citizen Latin
workers, deeply resent illegal immigration..it's vital that the
restaurant workers, most of whom are illegal aliens, reach out to these
workers, for reasons of self preservation if nothing else.
Bottom line, begging for pity from upper class Whites isn't going to
keep the leg irons off..but, appealing for solidarity from their
American-born fellow workers just might.
And, nothing inspires worker solidarity quite like a display of
strength on the job.
The best bet for this town's 160,000 restaurant, cafeteria, sky kitchen
and other food service workers would be a citywide general strike to
organize the entire industry from wall to wall, from kitchen to dining
room, from Tavern on the Green down to the neighborhood Chinese take
A strike like that might just be able to break away from "low wage
unionist" $ 3.30/hr demands, and instead fight for a middle income
standard of living for these workers.
But, the question is, why doesn't local 100 fight for these kinds of
Why don't they use these kind of militant (not to mention effective)
tactics, and instead resort to innefective (not to mention degrading)
Is it because the leaders of local 100 and the HERE are bad people?
No..far from it, both the local union and the HERE international staffs
are chock full of idealistic college educated professionals who came
into labor to help the downtrodden immigrant masses.
The real problem here is political.
Both New York Restaurant Workers local 100, and the Hotel Employees and
Restaurant Employees International Union as a whole, are dominated by
an ideology called business unionism.
Business unionism is the dominant ideology in most of the American
labor movement. It's based on the philosophy that workers and bosses
have common interests, and it's the union's job to encourage
"compromise" between labor and management. Those "compromises"
inevatibly end up being on management's terms.
There are different types of business unionism, of course, and two
different versions of this ideology have dominated the HERE for most of
One version is what I call "gangster unionism".
That was the ideology that dominated the HERE, both here in New York
City and on the international union level, from the late 1920's to the
Basically, gangster unions allow certain employers to have substandard
wages and working conditions. Usually, the employers are either
connected with the same organized crime groups that the union leaders
are, or they pay bribes to the union leaders and/or gangsters.
Gangster unionism died out in the HERE in the 80's, in large part due
to law enforcement pressure. The feds cracked down because the
employers got tired of paying bribes..especially since, with the great
weakening of the union in the food service industry, the union bosses
really no longer threatened the restauranteurs with a credible threat
Gangster unionism in the HERE was replaced by what I call "corporate
unionism", or, what the bosses of the HERE like to call "low wage
No matter what you call it, this type of unionism is actually worse
than gangster unionism.
Unlike gangster unions, who only make givebacks to some
criminally-connected employers, and actually do enforce union
conditions at the non racketeer linked signatory companies, "corporate"
or "low wage" unions offer substandard wages and working conditions to
ALL their members, and don't extract bribes from any of the bosses.
This is why publications like Business Week and Crain's New York
Business love the HERE so much. These corporate journalists know that
the leaders of this union are pro-business, believe in the capitalist
system, and will help employers lower wages to their lowest possible
level...and the employers won't have to pay a penny in bribes in
It's the best of both worlds for management..
And the worst of both worlds for labor.
But gangster unionists and corporate unionists have one thing in
They both belive in the capitalist system.
These two types of business unionism are both based on the false idea
that workers and bosses have common interests, and the function of a
union is to promote "partnership" between labor and management.
So, what's the alternative?
Well, I believe that, for restaurant workers to advance their cause,
they need to embrace something that I like to call "revolutionary
I've talked about revolutionary unionism on the GANGBOX website before,
and on the GANGBOX listserv, at:
Basically, revolutionary unionism recognizes the fundamental conflict
of interest that exists between workers and bosses under the
capitalistic economic system.
Workers are the source of all profits, and yet we are paid only a
fraction of the value we produce. Businesspeople, who don't create any
value at all, are the ones who collect the money generated by worker's
labor, and the actual workers only see a fraction of what they produce.
In the case of the food service business, it would be impossible for
these businesspeople to provide their services without cooks to prepare
the food, dishwashers and kitchen helpers to unload the delivery
trucks, wash the dishes and clean the kitchens and dining rooms, and
waiters, waitresses, bartenders, delivery people and other dining room
workers to actually take the food to the customers.
A revolutionary hotel and restaurant workers union would recognize
these facts, and would fight for workers to get a larger share of the
revenue that they generate.
First things first, that would involve organizing these workers.
And, staging restaurant by restaurant NLRB petition campaigns is not
the answer. There are just too many employers in the industry, it would
take too long, and would probably fail.
Instead, what would be very helpful would be an industry-wide
strike...kind of like the citywide restaurant workers strikes that
built what is now the HERE back during World War I.
Probably, the best bet would be to start where the union already has a
tenuous foothold..that is, the corporate cafeterias and the sky
That would grant those workers an opportunity to resolve the problems
that they currently have..that is, low wages and poor working
conditions, and would also be strategically useful in that this
campaign could be used to establish a common industrywide contract with
one pay scale and one expiration date.
Beyond that, this strike could be spread out from those small unionized
sectors into all of the restaurants in the city. That would include the
restaurants in Restaurant Row, Times Square, Midtown, Downtown, and
spreading out to City Island and Sheepshead Bay. Ultimately, the goal
would be to spread the strike to as many bars, restaurants, pizza
shops, fried chicken places, Chinese takeout places and other eating
places as possible. The strike could even be spread to McDonalds,
Burger King, White Castle, KFC, Blimpies, Subway and other franchised
national fast food chains.
Now, remember, many of these employers are very small and
marginal..they do not have the resources to survive a long strike. Of
course, some small restauranteurs could simply rely on themselves and
their families to scab on the strike..however, for many of the medium
sized or large establishments, that would be simply impossible.
This kind of citywide strike would create a climate of crisis in the
industry, where unprecedented labor changes could be demanded and won
by the restaurant workers.
One of the first things which I think should be put on the table would
be a major wage increase.
Obviously, the restaurant workers themselves would have to work out the
details of the demands, but, I do have some ideas for what they should
ask for. I would propose a demand of a $ 10/hr cash wage plus $ 2/hr in
food minimum for all restaurant workers.
That would mean that all unskilled non tipped restaurant workers
(busboys, dishwashers, kitchen helpers ect), as well as all employees
in fast food restaurants, would recieve at least $ 10 dollars an hour,
plus $ 2 dollars worth of free food for every hour worked. Cooks,
bakers and other skilled restaurant kitchen workers should recieve a
minimum of $ 20/hr in cash plus $ 2/hr in food.
As for the "front of the house" restaurant workers, that is, waiters,
waitresses, bartenders, hostesses ect, I would propose that non tipped
dining room workers have a minimum of $ 15/hr in cash and $ 2/hr in
As for tipped workers, (that is, waitresses, waiters, bartenders and
food deliverypeople) I would propose a minimum of $ 10/hr in cash plus
$ 2 in food per hour, along with a 20% commission on every item of food
Now, I would propose that, instead of leaving waitpeople's tips up to
the customer's whim, that the contract should require that every meal
have a 20% service charge built into the price. That service charge
would automatically go to the worker serving the meal. If the customer
left an additional cash tip on top of the service charge, that tip
would go to the server also.
This is not such a radical idea..in Europe, restaurants typically add a
service charge to the price of the meal, and that service charge goes
directly to the waitperson.
As for the workweek, I would propose a 6 hour day and 5 day week, with
two days off per week. In that 6 hour shift, there should be a 30
minute meal period and a 15 minute paid rest period.
All hours worked after 6 in a day, and all hours worked on a worker's
scheduled days off should be paid at the time and a half rate. That
time and a half would not only apply to the cash portion of the wage,
but would also apply to the meal allowance - for example, the overtime
rate on $ 10/hr cash and $ 2/hr in food would be $ 15/hr in cash and $
3/hr in food.
Restaurant workers should also have a minimum of 2 weeks paid vacation,
12 paid holidays, 6 sick days and 6 personl days. All hours worked on
holidays should be double time.
The restaurant industry also has a big problem with sporadic
employment. Some sectors of the industry are seasonal, and there is a
constant turnover of businesses, with new restaurants opening and
existing restaurants going out of business very frequently. This means
that food service workers frequently find themselves having to change
In light of that fact, I would propose that local 100 set up a hiring
That's not an unusual thing for the HERE...for years, HERE locals
across the country have run banquet waiter hiring halls, most notably
in Chicago local 1, San Francisco local 2, New York Hotel Workers local
6, Boston local 25, and, the biggest of them all, in Las Vegas Culinary
Workers local 226. There's no reason why local 100 couldn't follow in
I would propose that restaurants and other food service businesses with
less than 10 workers be permitted to hire 5 of their workers from any
source, and 5 from the hiring hall. After the eleventh worker has been
hired, the boss would have to hire 9 out of 10 new hires from the
In the event of a layoff, employees should be laid off by
seniority..last hired, first laid off. In the event that an employer
wants to fire a worker for cause, if that worker has satisfactorally
completed a 30 day period of probationary employment, the boss should
have to present a reason for firing that worker, in writing, to that
worker as well as the union. The notice to the employee should be
written in English, and, if necessary, should also be translated into
the native language of the worker (Spanish, Bengali, Pushtu, Cantonese
Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Fujianese Chinese, Greek, Albanian, Arabic,
Wolof, Polish, Haitian Kreol, French, Ukranian, ect)
The employee would then have a right to demand a hearing from the union
to show cause for the firing. At that time the employer would be
required to prove, by preponderance of the evidence, why they have good
cause to fire that employee.. The employee would be represented by the
union, and would also have the right to have an independent attorney of
his/her choosing, as well as a translator, if necessary. The
translators and attorneys should be paid for out of a special benefit
fund, financed 100% by the employers.
As for the immigration issue...let's face facts. The food service
industry is notorious in all but openly hiring illegal aliens to work
in their kitchens, a pratice they've been carrying on for at least 20
In light of that fact, the employers should bear the financial brunt of
paying to regularize their employee's immigration status.
Workers should have a right to paid time off to take care of hearings,
appointments and other immigration issues with the Bureau of
Immigration and Customs Enforcement and employers should be required by
the collective bargaining agreement to become the immigration sponsor
any employee who requests it, provided that worker has been on the job
for 1 year or more.
The union should also set up a special benefit fund, financed 100% by
the employers, to provide an immigration lawyer to any member who needs
In the case of Social Security Administration no match letters, the
employer should be required to keep the worker on the job for at least
a year while they work on their immigration status and get themselves a
either a legitimate social security card or a state or federal tax ID
number. After a year, if the worker doesn't get a social security
number or a tax ID number, the employer should be able to terminate
them, but, if the worker is able to obtain a social security card or a
tax ID number, they should be able to reclaim their job.
In the event that an employee gets detained by the BICE or the
Department of Homeland Security, the worker should be able to reclaim
their job if they manage to secure their release.
If a worker is deported, he or she should get a minimum of 2 weeks
severance pay, plus 1 week's wages for every year they worked at the
restaurant. If the worker is able to return to the US, they should have
the right to reclaim their job.
In addition, the employer should be required to pay an amount
equivilent to the weekly unemployment check that the worker would have
gotten from UI for a period of 26 weeks after deporation, and to
forward that sum, in US dollars, to the worker in the country they've
been deported to.
Detained employees should also recieve that same 26 weeks of
unemployment payments from the employer. As much as possible of the
payment should be placed directly in the worker's detention center
commisary account. The balance should either be placed in a bank
account, or forwarded to a relative, spouse or domestic partner
designated by the worker, or forwarded to the worker's attorney.
These measures would put the heat of the immigration crisis where it
belongs..on the cheapskate employers who hire illegal aliens so they
can pay substandard wages. Also, these measures are a lot more
realistic than the pie in the sky "undocumented worker amnesty" program
that the HERE advocates.
Illegal alien amnesty is unlikely to be adopted during the current
war.. with the possible exception of a partial amnesty for illegal
immigrants who enlist in the military and their dependents.
Even if it was, it's main effect would not be to help immigrant
Instead, amnesty would help the employers by causing massive illegal
immigration to the US.
This would flood America's already overcrowded blue collar and service
sector labor markets.
That would in turn cause depressed wages, job loss and massive
unemployent for American born and immigrant workers alike..
In fact, immigrant workers themselves would bear the brunt of any job
loss and income declines related to an amnesty-inspired massive influx
of illegal immigrant workers.
Beyond that, the HERE should take agressive affirmative action efforts
to make sure that immigrant workers are as represented in the
leadership of the union as they are in the membership.
At present, the HERE is a "pro immigrant union" that has an
international leadership that's overwhelmingly White and US born.
Most of the major HERE locals have the same problem
This utter lack of immigrant workers in union leadership and staff
positions, and overwhelmingly White American union officers and staff
in largely Latino unions is true in Hotel Workers local 6 and
Restaurant Workers local 100 in New York City, Bartenders local 165 and
Culinary Workers local 226 in Las Vegas, local 227 in Laughlin, Nevada,
local 86 in Reno, Nevada, local 309 in Palm Springs, California, local
54 in Atlantic City, local 3 in Newark, local 69 in Secacus, New
Jersey, local 2 in San Francisco, local 25 in Boston, local 1 in
Even the HERE locals that actually have Latino leadership, like local
11 in Los Angeles and local 681 in Orange County, California, are run
by American born Chicanos, rather than Mexican, Guatemalan or
Salvadoran immigrant workers.
That's union Apartheid, not union democracy.
Apparently, in the HERE, "immigrant's rights" means the right to
taxation without representation.
But, for those changes to happen, the HERE would have to become a very
different union than it is today.
That change would have to start from the kitchens and dining rooms up,
with a dense network of shop stewards, with the authority to negotiate
greivances and, if necessary, call local strikes to straighten out
beefs with employers.
I would propose that restaurants with less than 10 workers have 1 shop
steward, elected by the workers he or she serves to a 6 month term of
office. Restaurants with between 10 and 25 workers should have a shop
steward and an assistant steward, preferably working on different
shifts so the workers can have union representative coverage for as
many hours of the employer's business day as possible..
Restaurants and food service facilities with more than 25 workers
should have a chief shop steward, plus an assistant steward on every
Restaurants with more than 100 workers should have a shop chair, a
chief steward representing the cooks and other kitchen staff, a chief
steward representing the waiters, waitresses and other dining room
staff, and one assistant steward in the kitchen and another assistant
steward in the dining room on every shift.
In the event that these stewards encountered a greivance, sexual
harassment complaint or safety issue that could not be satisfactorally
negotiated with the boss, they should have the authority to call a 72
hour work stoppage over the greivance. On the 4th day, the union's
representatives would step in and, with the consent of the affected
workers, declare the work stoppage an officially sanctioned strike.
The local would have to have a different structure than it does
currently for it to function like this. I would recommend a leadership
based on rank and file delegates.
I would propose that the union be run by a Council of Delegates. The
delegates would be rank and file workers, with at least 3 years
experience in the industry, elected to a single, 3 year, non re
electable term of office as a delegate. They would remain on the job,
and would recieve paid release time from the employers to attend
Council of Delegate meetings and other union related events. That
relase time would be paid for from a 100% employer financed trust fund.
The delegates would oversee the work of the union, determine union
policy, strategy and tactics, oversee collective bargaining and
organizing, and supervise the union's officers and staff. They would
also authorize all union expenditures. The Council of Delegates would
have a chair, selected by the other delegates, who would serve full
The Council of Delegates, led by it's chair, would also carry out
collective bargaining with the employers.
All contract negotiations with the employers should be carried out in
public, in a meeting hall large enough that members, as well as
journalists, would be able to attend, and with simultanious translation
provided for non English speaking members.
Upon reaching a proposed contract with management, the union should
present a full and complete copy of the proposed agreement to the
members, along with all appendices, memoranda of understanding and
other documents related to the agreement.
The proposed agreement and all related documentation should be
presented to the members in the English, Spanish, Cantonese Chinese and
Bengali languages, with translations into other languages available on
request. Members should have a minumum of 60 days to review the
agreement before voting on it, and, to aid in the discussion, the union
should hold as many special contract meetings as possible before the
A subcommittee of the Council of Delegates would also administer the
tribunals which would review employer attempts to discharge members for
cause. Those tribunals would also have the authority to discipline and,
if necessary, fire, union staff and to impeach union officers accused
Assisting the Council of Delegates would be a local union president,
secretary treasurer, vice president, and as many Business Agents and
organizers as the Council of Delegates determined to be necessary. The
president, secretary treasurer, VP, BAs and organizers would be
restaurant workers, with at least 3 years work experience in the
They would be elected by the members to a single, 3 year, non re
electable term of office. After their term of office expired, they
would have to wait at least 3 years before running for any other union
office. While in office, the officers would recieve a salary equivilant
to the wage earned by a restaurant cook under the proposed union scale
I presented above..that is, $ 600 a week in cash, and $ 60 a week in
Union officials who have to travel around the city to carry out their
duties would either recieve a weekly unlimited MTA Metrocard from the
union, or have their cab fare reimbursed, or have their gas, toll,
parking and parking ticket expenses on their private car reimbursed.
This proposed Council of Delegates structure for local 100 could be a
template for a revolutionary unionist Culinary Workers local 226 in Las
Vegas, a revolutionary local 54 in Atlantic City, a revolutionary
unionist Hotel Workers local 6 here in New York..and, in fact, could be
a blueprint for a whole new HERE.
Now, of course, the revolutionary Hotel Employees and Restaurant
Employees International Union I'm proposing is night and day different
than the present deeply undemocratic, pro corporate and institutionally
But, the union I describe, unlike today's HERE, would actually be able
to fight for the workers.
Of course, the changes I've outlined would be fought tooth and nail by
the present union leadership, as well as by the restauranteurs and
hotel operators. Also, it is certain that, if immigrant restaurant
workers tried to fight, they would be branded as "terrorists" and set
upon by the Department of Homeland Security.
However, 150,000 restaurant workers standing together as one, turning
off the stoves, letting the food go cold and walking out in the streets
would be a hard force to fight.
After all..the bosses can't fire em all...
The union officials can't intimidate em all..
And, the government certainly can't deport em all...
Beyond that, if food service workers don't stand together...they will
certainly fall one by one.
Thats it for now.
Be union, work safe.