Advocacy group’s growth push could put industry between ROC, hard place

Advocacy group’s growth push could put industry between ROC, hard place

NEW YORK —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

ROC-NY, an organization created to help former Windows on the World employees displaced by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and more recently responsible for headline-grabbing protests at several upscale restaurants in New York, earlier this month hosted an invitation-only gathering in Chicago to assess its plans to become a proponent for hourly, immigrant and minority foodservice workers nationwide. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

The gathering, which was formed in conjunction with San Francisco-based Young Workers United, another labor-advocacy group, featured a “discussion of what a National Movement of Restaurant Workers could look like, the needs that local groups have and the steps required to make the movement a reality,” according to the invitation, which was obtained by Nation’s Restaurant News. The event’s organizers also planned to map where their best opportunities for organizing lay as well as ways to develop membership and leadership, the invitation said. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

But while ROC officials confirm they are looking to expand the organization’s reach, they deny they would like to turn the group into a union. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“That has never been our intention,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC-NY. “It’s a private event, a meeting of people from around the country, an exploratory thing.” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Earlier this year, however, Jayaraman was quoted by the New York Post as saying her goal was to organize the 99 percent of the restaurant workforce that isn’t unionized, and industry defenders say they believe that is what’s going on. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“It’s pretty safe to say they’re franchising a shakedown operation,” said Bret Jacobson, a senior analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Union Facts, a watchdog group created last year by public affairs firm Berman & Co. “The restaurant industry needs to get out ahead of ROC and educate the public about them before they educate consumers first.” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Paul Schwalb, deputy director for the laundry and foodservice sector of UNITE-HERE Local 100, said his union was eager for ROC to grow its influence. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“They’re not doing bargaining or unit organizing,” he said. “They don’t at this point organize workers, so it’s not like we compete for the same workers. We compete for justice in different ways. They don’t bargain for contracts. By and large, we see their work as positive justice for hospitality workers. We hope this builds their power in the industry. We don’t think their power diminishes our power. We see it as additive.” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Since its founding in 2002, ROC-NY has become known for what some call strong-arm tactics, such as picketing restaurants that it has targeted for what it maintains are labor law violations. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

In the recent past, ROC has organized highly publicized demonstrations against some prestigious New York restaurants. In at least two cases — involving Smith & Wollensky [3] Restaurant Group and Daniel [4] Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel [5] — ROC’s members have won what are believed to be sizable out-of-court financial settlements. Also currently embroiled in legal activity with ROC is the Fireman Hospitality Group [6], which has hired attorneys to examine the organization’s tax-exempt status as a misapplication of federal laws. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Others are raising similar questions. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“They’re so obvious about the way they’re attempting to organize the labor of our industry,” said Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. [7] —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“They should at least wear the correct uniform,” he added, referring to ROC-NY’s status as a nonprofit organization, as defined by section 501c3 of the federal tax codes. “It’s a little difficult to understand how ROC, which was formed as a 501c3, a charitable organization, can suddenly become a union and maintain its tax-free status.” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Jacobson echoed Hunt’s assessment of ROC, saying: “This is very much the future of unionizing in the restaurant industry. It’s about attacking a brand as opposed to going restaurant to restaurant to try to [recruit] members. They’ve said they don’t want to be a union, but if it walks like a union, talks like a union and attacks businesses like a union…” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

The meeting in Chicago occurred shortly after ROC-NY drew headlines for several legal disputes. A defamation lawsuit filed against the organization by famed chef Daniel Boulud was dropped as part of the recent settlement of a discrimination suit brought against Restaurant Daniel by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That action accused the French-born Boulud of discriminating against nonwhite employees and favoring French, white staffers for promotions. ROC-NY had picketed Daniel in support of the plaintiffs, all of whom were people of color. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Local 100’s Schwalb said ROC’s work is essential to ensuring that industry employees are treated fairly and receive just compensation for their work. He added that ROC’s proposed expansion would help restaurant workers nationwide. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“They’re bringing forward the good work they’re doing in New York to a broader audience,” he said. “There is a need for someone to sort of bring justice to workers in these shops. Everyone should have the same access to promotions in the workplace regardless of their color.” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

In an ironic twist, however, late last month ROC-NY was sued by eight former members who claimed they were denied equity they had earned by working at Colors [8], a restaurant set up by ROC-NY as a co-op. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, reinstatement of the plaintiffs’ jobs at Colors, back pay and an equity stake in the New York restaurant. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Jayaraman denied that the plaintiffs had anything to do with the restaurant, which was opened to provide jobs to former employees of Windows on the World. ROC-NY is seeking to have the case dismissed. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

In the meantime, the lawsuit is giving ROC-NY’s critics ammunition. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“It would seem that they took advantage of the very people they’re supposed to be advocates for,” Hunt said of court complaint. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“The way to make them less powerful is to expose them for what they are,” Jacobson said. “When hypocrites preach to the public, the public is not inclined to listen. But if the industry doesn’t do a good job of challenging them, then it will be in trouble.” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

Jacobson added that some restaurateurs are “doing big blowups of articles about ROC-NY [and its tactics] and offering copies of [those articles] to passersby and customers.” He also advises industry members to write letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines when these kinds of stories pop up, and to reach out to reporters. —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.

“We are trying to keep an eye on them,” Jacobson said, “but its going to take more intellectual and resource investment to win this fight in the long run.” —As The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, an employee-advocacy group likened by some to a union, works to grow its influence nationwide, critics are warning restaurateurs they must be ready to fight the anticipated “PR smear campaigns” to come.