A New Leader Emerges in New York City's Labor Struggles
December 03, 2012News & Politics
For Mahoma Lopez, a long-time restaurant worker in New York City, it came down to a decision between fight and flight. Last fall, his boss at the cafe on the Upper East Side where Lopez had worked for years began cutting hours and screaming at his employees, withholding overtime pay and threatening to fire anyone who complained. Being Mexican-born and with halting English, Lopez had been in this position before. Time after time, he’d quit; to be a proud man in his industry required a fair number of employment changes.
“Hot and Crusty —” Lopez said, smiling as he began the story of his most recent employer, one in a chain of cheap, 24-hour eateries sprinkled across Manhattan. Lopez leaned back in the flimsy chair of the pizzeria a few blocks from his Queens apartment. With his large stomach thrust forward and his wide cheeks covered in a trimmed beard, the 34-year-old looked stately, almost regal.
“In December, the campaign began underground,” he said.
Last month, Lopez and his co-workers at the Hot and Crusty on 63rd St. won a suspenseful and highly atypical 11-month labor campaign. The battle pitted 23 foreign-born restaurant workers, supported by a volunteer organizing center and members of Occupy Wall Street, against a corporate restaurant chain backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm. The campaign itself was filled with enough twists, betrayals and finally triumphs to be the subject of an upcoming documentary, Cafe Wars. Yet the story of Mahoma Lopez’s own year-long evolution from an employee to an organizer exemplifies the new, dynamic direction of the U.S. labor movement that appears to be on the brink of resurgence.
Lopez has a friendly disposition, which he employs in conversation to smooth over whatever difficulties have come his way. Crossing the Mexican-American border with a coyote — a smuggler of migrants — was no big deal, he says, even though the coyote was detained and imprisoned at the border, leaving 18-year-old Lopez in charge of the rest of the group once they reached Texas. Lopez also talks about his father’s early death deftly, explaining that it left him a good job as a gas station attendant, which Lopez assumed when he was 13. His relaxed demeanor didn’t inure him to things like chaotic protests; as a boy growing up in Mexico City, he was generally against marches.
“I thought: The people are crazy,” he remembered.
His aversion to chanting crowds doesn’t mean that Lopez can’t be rash and impulsive in his own life. “Me enojÃ©” — which means “I got angry” in Spanish — is frequently his answer for why he made various life decisions, from quitting unpleasant jobs to immigrating to the U.S. But what Lopez sees in himself as recklessness, labor organizer Virgilio Aran sees as the type of pride and steadfast character that can make someone a good organizer.
“He’s very disciplined, that’s one of the most important qualities,” said Aran, who became involved in the Hot and Crusty campaign at the end of 2011. “He has been developing throughout the campaign, but I think that quality came with him before I met him.”
Aran, who co-founded the Laundry Workers Center along with his wife, Rosanna Rodriguez, first heard about Hot and Crusty when he received a call from one of Lopez’s co-workers, a man named Omar. At that point, the campaign was in its “super-secret” infancy. It consisted only of Lopez and two others, Gretel Areco and Gonzalo Jimenez, encouraging trusted co-workers to call the city Labor Board’s anonymous hotline. This, at first, was about as radical an action as Lopez was willing to take against his boss’s threats and frequent tirades. Omar hadn’t yet been vetted, and his unsolicited offer to call Aran put Lopez in a panic.
The moment was one of Lopez’s first brushes with the heart-racing anxiety that can come with organizing. By the end of the campaign, it would become a frequent sensation.
As it turned out, Omar was trustworthy, and Aran was one of the city’s best unaffiliated labor organizers. The newly-formed Laundry Workers Center was looking for its first campaign — although, as the group’s name implies, Aran had been eying the city’s notoriously exploitative laundry industry, not the low-wage restaurant business. Aran began an eight-week political education crash-course for the Hot and Crusty workers, and Lopez became his most curious and determined pupil. As the New Year approached, few could expect what was on the horizon — both for the Hot and Crusty campaign and on the national scene.
For the labor movement, 2012 began with all the paralysis of an election year, combined with the gloomy disappointment of the failed Scott Walker recall campaign in Wisconsin six months earlier. To many grassroots activists, organized labor was too lumbering and bureaucratic; to nearly everyone else, it was a pension-hungry special interest group that no longer belonged in today’s economic reality.
By the end of the year, however, labor had re-established itself through the popular teachers’ strike in Chicago, the first successful strikes at Walmart stores and warehouses in its 50-year history, the world’s largest private employer, the airport workers’ Thanksgiving Day walkouts at LAX, and the beginnings of an ambitious campaign to unionize employees at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains in New York City. The movement seemed invigorated, bursting with new leaders — and nowhere was this rapid transformation happening faster than at the fringes of the labor world, where the organizing could be focused on worker empowerment rather than continually being constrained by restrictive labor laws.
“The places I see [exciting organizing] happening most consistently are on what we would call the margins of the former labor movement,” writes Jane McAlevey, a labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement. This, she explains, “is in a lot of the immigrant organizing.”
On a blistering cold day in late January, smack in the middle of Manhattan, Mahoma Lopez and his small cadre of co-workers and volunteer organizers went public with a 50-person march to his Hot and Crusty store, where Lopez delivered a list of demands to a stunned manager.
“For me, that was one of the most incredible moments,” Lopez remembered. He confessed to being so nervous that, nearly one year later, he couldn’t quite believe that it had been he who delivered “la carta de demandas.”
Compared to the scale of the teachers’ strike or the snowballing Walmart walkouts that would erupt less than six months later, the Hot and Crusty fight was minuscule. Yet, the backdrop — the Manhattan food-service industry — was a microcosm of today’s highly globalized and highly unequal economic system.
Combined, the city’s tens of thousands of restaurants net an annual profit of more than $12 billion, according to the New York State Restaurant Association. Inside the sector’s hierarchy, however, this wealth hardly trickles down. The majority of the jobs the industry produces are low-wage, no-benefit positions that are overwhelmingly held by immigrants, about a third of whom are undocumented. According to a 2005 study, 60 percent of surveyed workers reported their bosses violating overtime laws, and one-third reported being verbally abused at work.
Mexican workers like Mahoma Lopez often endure the most exploitative conditions. According to a 2010 New York Times investigation, Mexican men are more likely to be employed in the restaurant industry than any other ethnic group, including American-born workers, in part because fear of deportation and desperate economic need makes them unlikely to report below-minimum-wage pay or workplace abuse.
While this addiction to cheap labor drives down wages throughout the industry, investors and private equity firms end up accumulating much of the resulting profits. The chain that includes Lopez’s Hot and Crusty is owned by Praesidian Capital, a $700 million company with a white South African operating partner named Mark Samson. To the Hot and Crusty workers and supporting organizers, Samson — living in a high-rise around the corner from the restaurant — became the symbol of the industry’s power imbalance. Rumors flew about his investing practices and his numerous chains of restaurants. But the bottom line that sparked the labor struggle wasn’t jealousy over Samson’s and other investors’ tax filings — it was their labor practices.
“It doesn’t matter how rich you are, it matters what type of situation you’re putting the workers’ lives in,” said Diego Ibanez, a volunteer organizer who worked with Lopez and Aran to plan actions throughout the Hot and Crusty struggle.
After that first freezing march, the escalation on both sides was fierce. The employees organized and won an independent workers’ association recognized by the National Labor Relations Board in May. They received tens of thousands of dollars in back pay, only to learn that the company decided to close the store in retaliation against the newly formed workers’ association. At that point, the legal handbook went out the window, and Lopez’s impulsiveness became indispensable. Far from being against a noisy protest, Lopez now hungered for it.
“Organizers like to joke about the most radical things we could do, and he always liked those conversations,” said Ibanez. When we joked about occupying the workplace, and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that.’ He liked the possibilities of escalation.”
On August 31, the day the manager came to inform Lopez that the store was to be closed — a decision made weeks earlier — Lopez, his co-workers and a handful of community members rushed into the restaurant and prevented its closure by holding a workers’ assembly. The action resulted in multiple arrests and kicked off a picket line and a week-long sidewalk cafe that, fittingly enough, opened for (free) business on Labor Day.
The back-and-forth continued. Finally the company relented, only to reveal that unpaid rent had soured the relationship with the landlord, who wouldn’t renew the lease. The workers’ picket stretched into its second month, straining finances and spreading fatigue. Still, Lopez remained a bedrock of the campaign.
At one point, his financial situation had become so precarious that Virgilio Aran found Lopez — who has a wife and two sons to support — a part-time job, which kept him away from the picket line for the first time since it began.
“The first day that he went to the part-time job, one of his co-workers stayed at the picket line himself,” said Aran. “Mahoma called me that night and he said, ‘I won’t take the job. That was my first and last day.
“‘We’re here in the struggle for the victory, and the picket line is more important than getting some type of income,’” Aran remembered Lopez saying. “That’s his character.”
Finally, in late October, the company ceded to the workers’ demands — agreeing to reopen the store, recognize the workers’ association and sign a collective-bargaining agreement that included paid vacation and sick time for the workers, required wage increases, a grievance and arbitration procedure, and a union hiring hall that gives the association the power to hire new employees. That night, after Lopez learned that he had finally won, he sat down and called every single organizer and thanked them.
The next week, as he waited for the store to reopen, Lopez became the newest volunteer organizer with Laundry Workers’ Center. According to Aran, Lopez is now one of the lead organizers on another underground labor campaign.
But, like any seasoned organizer, if you ask Mahoma Lopez about the new campaign, he won’t reveal a word.