70 Hours a Week at Puny Wages, Exploited Workers Ditch Their Boss to Start Their Own Street Cafe
September 5, 2012
This past Labor Day, Diana Ortiz spent the afternoon enticing people to dance merengue and inviting them to enjoy free coffee at the newly opened Worker Justice Cafe in midtown Manhattan.
“Come get some coffee, bagels,” she called as she beckoned passing pedestrians without breaking the music’s quick two-four rhythm.
Her customers were disoriented, but mostly pleased. The majority recognized Ortiz as the outgoing women with a whip-smart sense of humor from their favorite 24-hour cafe and pizzeria, the Hot and Crusty on 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue. But instead of serving them from inside the store, Ortiz and about a dozen of the cafe’s other employees were now running a free cafe on the sidewalk directly outside the chained-shut pizzeria.
The opening of the Worker Justice Cafe was the latest in a string of escalating actions at this store, which have included pickets, a May Day march and a workplace occupation last Friday that resulted in six arrests. The 23 workers at the Upper East Side branch of Hot and Crusty, part of a chain of New York City restaurants, have been organizing since last fall to win fair wages and safe workplace conditions from the store’s owner, Mark Samson, a managing partner at a private equity firm. Inspired and supported by Occupy Wall Street, the Hot and Crusty campaign represents a new phase of organizing for the young movement. Moving beyond protests and reclamations of public space, the Hot and Crusty campaign brought the fight to the domain of private property, seeking to challenge, and ultimately break down, exploitative power relationships at the heart of capitalism: the workplace.
Before the Hot and Crusty workers began organizing, many were being paid below minimum wage and enduring verbal and sexual harassment at work.
“I was working 70 hours and earning $430 a week,” explained Hot and Crusty worker Margarito Lopez in Spanish. His pay averaged out to $6.14 an hour--more than a dollar below New York State minimum wage. Ben Dictor, a law school graduate who works with the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer group that has provided legal support and organizing training to the workers, remembers first hearing that this was Lopez’s salary. Dictor asked Lopez to fill out his yearly schedule as part of the documentation for a series of charges Dictor has filed with the Labor Board against this store. Lopez placed Xs on 360 out of 365 days of the year and wrote the number 10 at the top of the sheet.
“I thought he'd did it wrong,” said Dictor. “But then, through a translator, he told me, no I did it right. I worked 10 hours a day, and those [five Xs] were my days off.”
Other workers reported stories of owners and managers coming through to spew aggressive verbal abuse, sexual come-ons or threats about the workers’ immigration status.
After months of organizing, the 23 workers voted and won the right to form an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association. They won a considerable sum of stolen back pay, but soon learned that, in retaliation, Samson planned to close the store and fire all the workers. On Friday, when the manager went to close the store, the workers instead marched into the restaurant and occupied the space for nearly four hours, holding a workers’ assembly before the police arrived, arrested six supporters from Occupy who, at the request of the workers, refused to leave. The police then chained the restaurant doors shut. (The workers distracted themselves from their emotions by ridiculing the management-police duo for closing the store with exposed food still sitting in the window, waiting for rats and roaches.)
On Monday, the workers returned to their now-shuttered workplace and set up tables where they served coffee, bagels, donuts and other pastries. The opening of the workers’ cafe on Labor Day was an intentional effort by the workers to push the labor movement away from the tired, legal wrangling that characterizes the majority of modern union campaigns and toward an actual vision of worker empowerment and worker control. This action is part a growing strategy at the margins of the labor movement, a space most often led by immigrant workers, where brave tactics like worker-led occupations have replaced bureaucrat-led rallies.
There is, of course, a legal component to the Hot and Crusty campaign. Closing the store to avoid the union is not, in itself, illegal. But the Hot and Crusty Workers Association’s law firm, Eisner & Mirer, argues this particular closure violated labor law because it was a retaliatory action intended to stop organizing at the other stores, which is illegal. The firm also plans to bring a federal court lawsuit under the Wage Theft Protection Act. Further complicating the matter is that the workers suspect Samson will reopen the store under a different name in the same location, which would require him to recognize the preexisting union, but permit him to fire everyone without proper U.S. work permits, which is the majority of the current workers.
Given the limited legal recourses, especially for immigrants, the Hot and Crusty workers are for now running their own sidewalk cafe outside the store--both as a symbolic action to demonstrate a worker-led restaurant and to mobilize community support.
“I want them [the community] to understand that they don’t need to leave us,” said Mahomar Lopez, one of the workers who has been leading the campaign.
As to be expected on the Upper East Side, a few free-market ideologues dropped by on opening day to explain that “times were tough” and “if the workers didn’t like the conditions, they could always get another job.” These interactions grew heated at times, with at least one man inspired to spit on supporting organizers. But overall the community was overwhelmingly supportive of the workers.
“It’s amazing what people get away with these days!” one man exclaimed. The police, perhaps eyeing their own union, did not interfere, and a team of firefighters in a passing truck even honked and pumped their fists in support.
Even those with little interest, if not hostility toward, unions saw the move to close the shop as an obvious loss.
“It’s best for the community and best for the workers if the store reopens,” said Joey Greenwald, who lives right next door to the Hot and Crusty. “He obviously has enough money that he can close the store, but now there are 23 employees without food on the table and a neighborhood without its favorite restaurant. I’m very in favor of them succeeding.”
The extent of the alliance between the low-paid, mostly undocumented workers and the neighborhood’s distinctly white, upper-class community was at times surprising. One well-dressed woman who opened her conversation with the words, “Let me tell you something. I used to work in finance...” ended up signing the workers’ petition only moments later. Then again, “let me tell you something...” was possibly the most common introductory sentence for passing community members, which suggests that, for many, their support for workers was borne out of caffeine-addicted self-interest rather than true egalitarianism.
On Monday, the workers took home $184 in donations; not enough to cover all of their sidewalk shifts, but enough to reopen the Worker Justice Cafe the following afternoon. They plan to open the Worker Justice Cafe for the whole first week of September with the demand that the owner reopen the store and recognize the union.
Update: After a week of running the Worker Justice Cafe and ongoing protests, the workers won all their demands in negotiations. Learn more about victory.