On September 11, 2001, mostly Saudi terrorists hijacked four planes as an radical attack on the United States. They killed 2,996 people at the time. More have died since of the toxic dust they breathed in during the rescue operations. While we do not generally think of 9/11 as having a labor history, in fact it was a catalyst to one of the most important tendencies in the contemporary labor movement, which is the fight for dignity for restaurant workers.
All the media emphasis on the 9/11 deaths focused on the people on the planes and the business people in the Twin Towers. I’m not saying that wasn’t understandable at the moment. But there were a lot of other people who died in the Twin Towers too. They were the service workers in the buildings. Many of them were immigrants.
On the morning of 9/11, 73 workers, almost all immigrants, were on their shifts at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. This was a pretty fancy restaurant, though certainly as much geared to the tourists who took the view from the top of the buildings as the people who labored in the building or people who really wanted a fine dining experience. In any case, all 73 of those workers died that day. The terror they must have experienced is not something I can even imagine; as they were at the top of the building, they had to wait and hope and then the building collapsed and they all fell to their deaths.
The impact of 9/11 was not just felt among the surviving workers of Windows on the World. About 13,000 restaurant workers in New York lost their jobs in the aftermath of 9/11 due to restaurant closures.
The workers at Windows on the World already had done some organizing before 9/11 and were in the process of attempting to form a union. They contacted the young organizer Saru Jayaraman, already a rising star on the New York left, to work for them them and she agreed to do so. This soon became her life work and it was a partnership between her and Fekkak Mamdouh, a Moroccan immigrant and a rank and file worker in the restaurant. What they formed became Restaurant Opportunities Center United. This doesn’t necessarily sound like your typical union name; really, if you take out the “united” it sounds almost like some corporate board. But over the next several years, ROC-United became an important force in fighting for restaurant workers rights in America, not only the displaced workers from Window on the World, but those struggling to live a decent life around the country.
When the owner of Windows on the World opened his new place several months later, he openly denigrated his old workers, saying they were not worthy of his place. This led the workers to hold a protest in front of the new restaurant and this was the first time but very much not the last ROC-United got attention from the New York Times. Moreover, the protest embarrassed the guy enough that he agreed to hire all the workers for a new banquet restaurant he was opening. It seemed like organizing could make a change for the most disempowered restaurant workers. Soon, ROC opened an office, hired a few organizers, and had calls from restaurant workers around the country flooding into them, looking for someone to help.
The restaurant industry is one rife with exploitation. Some of this is pretty well known. We are all pretty familiar now with the culture of the screaming chef, who is abusive to his (usually his but not always) workers, often sexually harassing them, with cultures of drugs and alcohol. Hell, Gordon Ramsay has created an entire TV career this way. That is often especially true within the mid-range restaurants and above. At diners, but also throughout the entire restaurant industry to some extent, you also have a lot of racism, where there are a lot of immigrant workers, but you rarely see most of them because they are in the back of the house while lighter skinned people are in front. Even in many more chain-oriented Mexican restaurants for instance, the owners will place the lighter skinned Mexicans in the front of the house and the darker skinned ones (or the Guatemalans) in the back of the house where they cannot be seen. On top of all of this, there is tipping culture. The tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 for a very long time and while a few restaurant workers can make a ton of money on tips, many may not even get to the normal minimum wage based on how a house might share tips. This doesn’t even get into the other issues around tipping–placing huge amounts of power into the customer’s hands that can lead to all sorts of problems, from harassment to just not leaving a tip at all or leaving an insulting amount. It’s degrading to workers and it should be illegal.
So this is what ROC-United became. It took all the big fights and it continues to do so today. Mostly, it serves more as a broad working class lobbying organization more than a traditional union. It has been deeply involved in the fight at the state level to end the tipped minimum wage. I brought Jayaraman to the University of Rhode Island as part of a colloquium I co-organized back in 2016 and in the moments between obligations, she was on the phone with Rhode Island legislators and other state leaders around these issues. Some states have ended this practice, others have made adjustments, but for too many, it is the same. Theoretically the employer is supposed to make up the difference if the tips don’t reach the state minimum wage, but give me a break, that often does not happen.
One of the big issues ROC-United has worked on in the last two decades is wage theft, an endemic problem in restaurants. In 2012, it launched a big campaign against wage theft in the Darden Restaurant chain, which owned a lot of those mid-range not very good chains such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden. The next year, it launched the One Fair Wage campaign to fight against tipped minimum wages. In 2019, Jayaraman and Mahdouh left ROC to work full time with One Fair Wage, which became a non-profit. But ROC-United continues and was pretty active during the pandemic. It engaged in a major fundraising effort in 2020 to support at least a few of the unemployed restaurant workers. Moreover, it has gotten a lot of attention by publishing major reports over the state of restaurant labor in this country, over 30 so far. The latest was just back in July 2023. Titled Beat the Heat: Restaurant Workers Fight for a Safe and Dignified Work Environment, is on the timely issue of the horrendous heat workers now face in the summer and how callous employers are around this issue.
I borrowed from Saru Jayaraman’s Behind the Kitchen Door to write this post.
Usually the stories I tell in the labor history series have a beginning and some kind of an end. This one does not. The fight continues.
This is the 492nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.