Immigrant Restaurant Workers Hope to Rock New York

Following 9/11, displaced restaurant workers are transforming grief into action.

Dan La Botz

This article is from the January/February 2004 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the January/February 2004 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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When terrorists attacked the first of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, they destroyed, among many other things, the Windows on the World restaurant. At 8:46 a.m., the first hijacked plane crashed into the north tower where workers were serving regular breakfast customers on the 107th floor and conference attendees on the 106th floor. Among the thousands killed on that day were 73 Windows on the World workers. Another 300 were left without jobs. Other restaurants in the twin towers and the surrounding area were also destroyed by the attack or put out of business by the subsequent rescue and reconstruction efforts.

In solidarity with the displaced and grieving restaurant workers, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 100 set up a temporary relief center—the Immigrant Workers Assistance Alliance—for restaurant employees and their families. Multilingual caseworkers linked World Trade Center-area workers with services and financial assistance. Dozens of workers participated in weekly meetings that were, in those early days, first of all a source of comfort. Mary Assanful, a former Windows housekeeper, said the meetings "kept me from thinking about 9/11 all the time."

The Rockefeller Foundation funded the relief center's first 90 days in operation. After those 90 days, workers continued to arrive at the center's doors, most in search of jobs. Tourism had plummeted, leading to more layoffs. Citywide, over 13,000 restaurant workers were displaced in the months after the attack.

HERE Helps Create ROC-NY

In the face of this urgent and continuing need, HERE Local 100 asked immigration attorney Saru Jayaraman and Windows waiter Fekkak Mamdouh to launch the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, or ROC-NY, a permanent workers' center. Jayaraman and Mamdouh quickly expanded its scope beyond simply helping workers affected by 9/11.

The worker center has evolved into a powerful community-based organization that connects restaurant workers to jobs and provides a range of other services, but also organizes workers to take collective action in defense of their rights.

The ROC-NY model is based on the idea that services like job-search assistance, classes, and legal advocacy help to attract and hold workers, while drawing them into organizing. The wide range of activities appeals to people with different interests, talents, and desires. At the same time, the mix of projects encourages cross-ties among workers, as a single member may be involved with multiple projects and campaigns.

Today, ROC-NY is a small organization with only a few hundred members, but it operates as if it were a major union with thousands of members and a big treasury. It's simultaneously an educational center; an informal union fighting for workers' rights outside the usual legal framework; an organizer of demonstrations and media pressure in support of workers vulnerable to exploitation; a creator of a worker-owned cooperative business; and a bridge to regular membership in unions like HERE. The organization has crafted a complex and sophisticated strategy to reach workers. Its objective is no less ambitious than to organize all unorganized restaurant workers in New York City.

Organizing to Rock New York

"I have worked in all sorts of restaurants—Italian, French, and American—and they all violated my rights," says ROC-NY volunteer organizer Juan Martín Reyes Varela. "In particular, I experienced racial insults because of the color of my hair, the color of my skin, and my accent."

Reyes Varela, who comes from Oaxaca, Mexico, worked at the Famous Pizza Restaurant on Ann Street, which was put out of business by the terrorist attack. He contacted ROC-NY after hearing about it on television, and has worked with the organization ever since. "ROC-NY gave me classes and advised me. They explained that even though a worker may be illegal, he or she still has rights as a worker, such as the right to overtime. Now that I know my rights, I feel more secure."

In New York, over 90% of restaurant workers are unorganized, and 67% are immigrants, many of them undocumented. To organize these workers, ROC-NY activists begin by talking to them about their rights.

Reyes Varela and other volunteer organizers do outreach at worksites. When he arrives at a restaurant, Reyes Varela seeks out the manager or the chef. "I ask to speak to the workers," he says:

Often we are not well received. Obviously it is not in the interest of the owner, the manager, or the chef to have us speak to the workers. But sometimes they let us. If they won't give us an appointment to talk to the workers, then we come back and speak to the workers in the street after they leave work. I tell them they do not have to accept discrimination. I tell them they have the right to overtime—the regular workweek is 40 hours, but most workers work 60 or 70 hours a week, 11 or 12 hours a day, without overtime. We have a lawyer, and when we have compañeros who have problems, they can meet with the lawyer and send a letter to the employer. If that doesn't work, then we may protest. Through the protests we come to negotiations and reach agreements with the employers.

Back at the ROC-NY office, workers not only take classes in English, computers, and cooking—many are also drawn into ROC-NY's popular political education program. Co-founder Fekkak Mamdouh runs the 10-week popular education-style course through which workers develop leadership skills and find out how their struggles are connected with struggles of other oppressed people. They can also bring forward problems they are having at work, "and from those we develop campaigns that go after particular restaurants," according to Mamdouh.

Direct Action and Minority Unionism

ROC-NY's Worker Justice Campaign has already logged several victories:

  • In June 2002, organized Windows on the World workers pressured former owner David Emil to hire 32 former Windows workers at his newly opened restaurant, Noche. Emil did not initially want to hire his former employees for fear that they would form a union. Responding to ongoing pressure from ROC-NY members, Emil created an entirely new banquet department at Noche and hired several bussers, bartenders, and waiters he had previously refused to employ.
  • ROC-NY won $1,100 in back wages in early September for one worker who was never paid overtime wages at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. A few months later, ROC-NY and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) won reinstatement and $200,000 in back wages for five undocumented immigrant workers at a Brooklyn deli.
  • ROC-NY campaigned again with PRLDEF from March to May 2003, forcing the powerful and wealthy owner of the Park Avenue Country Club to sign an agreement to pay $45,000 to a group of six workers, provide paychecks on time, always pay overtime, and treat workers with respect.

"Several companies have promised to post a notice of the right to organize and to have ROC representation," according to Jayaraman. In a few cases, organizers have been able to get restaurant owners to promise that they will not fire any workers without first discussing the issue with ROC-NY. "Through protest and pressure we have been able to force owners to sign these agreements," she says.

The approach could be called "minority unionism": ROC-NY gets workers to act like a union even where the workers have not been legally recognized as a collective bargaining unit. "One difference between us and a union is that in a union you have to get a majority of a shop," Jayaraman explains. "In our case we just get a group of workers, but not necessarily the majority. The other difference," she adds dryly, "is that there's no health insurance."

Constant Loiseau, also a former Windows on the World worker, admits: "At the beginning when ROC-NY talked about 'victories,' I did not believe. But after good results from protests that have been organized, I finish by thinking ROC-NY is very serious in fighting for workers' rights."

To Mario Lopez, also a former Windows on the World worker, "these victories show workers that if we are united, we could win against the owners of restaurant businesses."

Long-Term Organizing Strategy

In any union organizing campaign, good information on the target sector is essential to developing a strong strategy.

ROC-NY is mapping out the economic structure of the restaurant industry and its workers in order to identify strategic targets for union organizing drives. Its Restaurant Industry Analysis is an effort involving at least 20 different social change institutions citywide, including three other immigrant worker centers, plus the New York City government. They recently completed the first stage of research, a quantitative overview of the restaurant industry using Department of Labor information and other data. They found that New York has 12,500 restaurants employing over 150,000 people. Some 5,790 "full-service restaurants" employ 81,304 workers and pay out $l.7 billion in wages per year, while 4,292 "limited-service eating places" employ another 41,400 workers and pay out $535 million in wages. (The remaining restaurants don't fit into either category.)

Just 100 of the full-service restaurants employ 100 or more workers. Many of these larger restaurants are also some of the most profitable. Although New York has only 3% of the U.S. population, it has a quarter of the country's 100 highest-grossing restaurants.

Outreach coordinator Utjok Amry Zaidan observes that ownership of upscale restaurants has grown more concentrated into "empires." While in 1989, 14 out of the top 15 restaurants in the restaurant guide Zagat were independently owned, today only three of the top fifteen are independent. The rest have been bought up by large restaurant corporations.

All of this suggests a certain plan of attack, which Jayaraman lays out:

Working with HERE 100, we identified the major conglomerate restaurant owners in the city. We've chosen one corporate empire that the union might be able to organize in a couple of years. The idea is to go after conglomerates that are in competition with restaurants that are already union-organized. We want the industry to feel threatened by the union or by us.

Zaidan adds, "Right now we are focusing on the Ark Restaurant Corporation. Ark owns several restaurants and employs about 2,000 workers, most of whom are immigrants. We would like to find three cases of violations—but we are finding it difficult because most workers are unwilling to cooperate with us." Workers who speak out fear being fired, and if they are undocumented, they may also fear being deported. Since 9/11, the government has cracked down on immigrants—especially those from Arab or Muslim countries—and almost all immigrant workers feel less secure.

"In addition to the Ark, we are also out visiting 'table cloth' restaurants. These are restaurants where appetizers cost about $8 and the average check is $40 per customer. We are not going after the fast food places."

Corporate and "table cloth" restaurants have a more stable and skilled workforce and should be more vulnerable to pressure exerted by the workers or by ROC or HERE. What's more, in larger restaurants, there is a better chance of finding workers with previous union and political experience and new activists with good organizing instincts.

ROC-NY researchers also examined who New York restaurant workers are and how much they earn. Their analysis revealed that more than two-thirds of all workers were born outside the United States. These findings suggest that organizers had better speak Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and other languages as well as English. Where possible, organizers should themselves be native speakers of those languages, better yet, restaurant workers from those countries. As for earnings, New York and U.S. government statistics indicate that wages range between $6.23 for a fast food cook at the bottom of the scale to over $13 an hour for supervisors, chefs and head cooks, and cafeteria cooks. Most immigrant workers are concentrated in the lower-level positions.

The next stage of industry analysis—a survey of 500 workers—has already begun. The group aims to identify employee needs and determine what kind of policy changes are needed to reform the industry. Jayaraman plans to publish a report based on the study in the spring of 2004. "The whole point" of the report is to help "launch a bill in the next state legislature around the restaurant industry," she says. "We are looking at a bill that would allow workers to get a restaurant's license revoked if they are not complying with certain labor standards. We realize this bill will create a lot of opposition in the industry."

A Worker-Owned Restaurant

For many displaced restaurant workers, one ROC-NY project generates particular excitement.

"We are currently organizing a group of members to open their own co-operatively owned restaurant, where workers themselves would be owners," said Jayaraman. "Basically the idea of the cooperative is that 50 immigrant workers from all over the world will own their own restaurant. It will be a model for the industry. We involved three celebrity chefs and a real estate developer, and will establish this restaurant in TriBeCa in downtown Manhattan."

The group hopes to raise $3.5 million to open the restaurant in the summer of 2004. The menu will feature both American fare and international dishes from employees' home countries.

In its early planning stages, the very idea of the cooperative gave a sense of hope to ROC-NY members. Magdi Labib, a 48-year-old Egyptian immigrant and former captain at Windows, said: "It was terrible after 9/11. Every day there was something that was a constant reminder of the pain." But when he and others began talking about creating a cooperative restaurant, he says, "we became really excited about this new venture."

The project holds out more than the possibility of getting a job again. It raises the idea of being one's own boss—a part-owner of a collective enterprise owned and managed by its workers. Once the cooperative restaurant is off the ground, Jayaraman plans to leverage it for economic and political ends. "We will use this to infiltrate the [restaurant] owners' association, since these workers, as owners of the restaurant, will also be able to join the association. We can find out what the owners are doing and be a thorn in their side. We can also use our membership in the association to support the legislation we are proposing."

ROC-NY and HERE Collaborate

Although ROC-NY has grown increasingly independent from HERE—it is directed by a board elected by its members and made up of 10 restaurant workers—it continues to collaborate closely with the labor union. Since 2002, the two organizations have met weekly to share strategies for developing workers' power in the restaurant industry. "We work with HERE Local 100 to think strategically, collaborate on research and policy issues, and think about specific restaurant corporation campaigns," Jayaraman explains. The two groups complement each other. In general, HERE represents only large "table cloth" restaurants, whereas ROC-NY organizes and provides services to workers from restaurants of all sizes. Some of ROC-NY's campaigns, particularly in larger establishments, may lay the groundwork for HERE to unionize those restaurants in the future.

ROC-NY is an organization in which workers play a leading role as organizers and activists in their workplaces and on their own behalf. As more workers are drawn into the worker center, and as those who are already members gain more knowledge and experience, they could transform it into a workers' organization of real significance, and perhaps even a new model for organizing immigrant workers. With some luck, these immigrant workers and their friends in the labor and social justice movements will rock New York's restaurant industry.

Dan La Botz teaches history and Latin American studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and works with Labor Notes, the labor education and organizing center in Detroit. He is the author of books on the United States, Mexico, and Indonesia.

To learn more about ROC-NY, and to read the first installment of the New York City Restaurant Industry Analysis, go to