Non-profit

Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York

Parent Organization:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) is a pro-labor union activist group affiliated with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. [1] The organization predates its parent organization group and was founded to support for the surviving employees of the Windows on the World Restaurant at the World Trade Center in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. [2]

ROC-NYC was initially founded with support from the local chapter of the Hotel Employees-Restaurant Employees Union, now known as Unite Here Local 100. The organization hosts trainings and protests in support of left-of-center employment policies and is a member of the Fight for $15 campaign to support a $15 federal minimum wage. While similar to a labor union, the group operates as a “worker center,” such that it is able to engage in many traditional union organizing activities while being able to skirt many legal requirements concerning union membership and reporting. [3]

Background

ROC-NY was founded following the 9/11 terrorist attacks when Unite Here Local 100, which represented workers at the World Trade Center restaurant Windows on the World, approached labor organizer Saru Jayaraman to ask her to form an organization that could provide aid to the 250 surviving employees of the restaurant while capitalizing on the thousands of donations that the restaurant received after the attack. [4]

The resulting organization became ROC-NYC. The organization was incorporated as a nonprofit, rather than a labor union, which allowed it to lead protests without securing support from most employees at a particular worksite and to primarily raise funds from other left-leaning organizations as opposed to collecting membership dues. These types of quasi-union organizations have branded themselves as “workers centers” and have been criticized for skirting Department of Labor regulations around union organizing while still conducting pressure campaigns against employers. In one interview, Jayaraman expressed a preference for the legal advantages that ROC-NY enjoyed as a charity as opposed to a labor union because it did not have to arbitrate disputes between employers and employees and did not have to abide by contracts with employers. [5]

ROC-NY led its first dispute after David Emil, former proprietor of the Windows on the World restaurant, announced plans to open a four-story restaurant in Times Square in 2002. ROC-NY complained that while Emil initially pledged to help former Windows employees, he only hired a handful for the new restaurant, leading ROC-NY to picket the location until Emil ultimately agreed to hire any former Windows employee who needed a job. [6]

Subsequent campaigns led by ROC-NY focused on helping employees launch lawsuits against restaurant employers. The organization claims to have secured $10 million for employees after launching its first fifteen campaigns on issues including sexual harassment, back wages, and improper use of tips. The organization has additionally been active with the Fight for $15 campaign, has supported the implementation of mandatory paid sick leave programs, and has advocated for the elimination of a lower minimum wage for tipped employees. [7]

In 2012, then-U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) inquiring as to why the department partnered with ROC-NY, which at the time was leading disruptive protests at New York restaurants. In one instance, celebrity chef Mario Batali filed for a restraining order against the organization. At the time of Rep. Issa’s inquiry, the Department of Labor had given ROC-NY a $275,000 grant to fund its training activities. [8]

In the years since it was first founded, the union organizers behind ROC-NY have given the organization a national focus. The group began hosting trainings and protests for union groups across the country. ROC-NY members founded what has since become its national parent company, ROC United. ROC-NY began to roll its operations into ROC United, and by 2018, ROC-NY began functioning as a chapter of the national organization, rather than acting as an independent group. [9]

In addition to organizing protests and lawsuits, ROC-NY also releases an annual diners’ guide that rates restaurants based on their employment policies, such as which restaurants pay above minimum wage or offer paid sick leave. [10]

Failed Restaurant Venture

ROC-NY formerly operated a restaurant in New York City called COLORS. The restaurant gained publicity upon opening for being operated by surviving Windows on the World employees and was billed by ROC-NY as being employee-owned and operated by the nonprofit with the purpose of providing a higher wages and benefits to its employees. [11]

Nonetheless, when the restaurant opened in 2006, it was criticized for providing subpar benefits and services to employees. While the restaurant paid employees above minimum wage and claimed to be employee-owned, it required employees to work 100 hours for free before having an ownership stake. The restaurant was additionally accused of sending payments to employees late, and after its initial closure in 2017, several employees sued the restaurant for withholding wages. The restaurant was also far from profitable, losing roughly $1 million in its first year due to high overhead costs and higher-than-average employee compensation. [12]

In December 2019, COLORS reopened under head chef Sicily Sewell-Johnson and abruptly closed just over a month later in January 2020. Sewell-Johnson criticized ROC-NY for not having a management structure or payroll system operational at the time of the restaurant’s opening. Sewell-Johnson also alleged that ROC-NY did not provide the healthcare package it had promised her and barred her from distributing money she had raised to help the restaurant’s employees at the time of its closing. [13]

Leadership

The founder of ROC-NY and ROC-United is Saru Jayaraman, a career labor union and left-progressive organizer. Since taking control of ROC-NY, Jayaraman has released books advocating for a national, left-of-center restaurant labor movement. In 2014, she was recognized by then President Barack Obama as a “Champion of Change” for her efforts to increase employment regulations and unionize the restaurant industry. [14] In 2019, Jayaraman left her role leading ROC to turn the organization’s One Fair Wage campaign, which supported the elimination of a lower minimum wage for tipped workers, into a separate organization. [15]

References

  1. “Mission.” ROC United. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://rocunited.org/mission/ ^
  2. Gelles, David. “An Outspoken Force to Give Food Workers a Seat at the Table.” The New York Times. February 20, 2016. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/business/an-outspoken-force-to-give-food-workers-a-seat-at-the-table.html?_r=0 ^
  3. Gelles, David. “An Outspoken Force to Give Food Workers a Seat at the Table.” The New York Times. February 20, 2016. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/business/an-outspoken-force-to-give-food-workers-a-seat-at-the-table.html?_r=0 ^
  4. Gelles, David. “An Outspoken Force to Give Food Workers a Seat at the Table.” The New York Times. February 20, 2016. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/business/an-outspoken-force-to-give-food-workers-a-seat-at-the-table.html?_r=0 ^
  5. Vernuccio, Vincent. “Attack of the UFOs.” Capital Research Center. September 4, 2013. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://capitalresearch.org/article/attack-of-the-ufos-alt-labor-worker-centers-and-the-rise-of-united-front-organizations/ ^
  6. Gelles, David. “An Outspoken Force to Give Food Workers a Seat at the Table.” The New York Times. February 20, 2016. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/business/an-outspoken-force-to-give-food-workers-a-seat-at-the-table.html?_r=0 ^
  7. Gelles, David. “An Outspoken Force to Give Food Workers a Seat at the Table.” The New York Times. February 20, 2016. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/21/business/an-outspoken-force-to-give-food-workers-a-seat-at-the-table.html?_r=0 ^
  8. Nelson, Eshe. “House questions Labor Department support of pesky activist group.” The Daily Caller. July 3, 2012. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://dailycaller.com/2012/07/03/house-questions-labor-department-support-of-pesky-activist-group/ ^
  9. “IRS Form 990” Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. 2017. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/display_990/30522321/03_2019_prefixes_01-04%2F030522321_201712_990EZ_2019030716153236 ^
  10. Carman, Tim. “ROC names worker-friendly eateries, fights a new foe.” The Washington Post. December 5, 2012. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/all-we-can-eat/post/roc-names-worker-friendly-eateries-fights-a-new-foe/2012/12/05/b0229770-3f1b-11e2-bca3-aadc9b7e29c5_blog.html ^
  11. Dai, Serena and Carter, Morgan. “LES’s Already-Closed Colors Was ‘a Mess’ From the Start, Chef Says.” Eater New York. January 21, 2020. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://ny.eater.com/2020/1/21/21075153/colors-lower-east-side-roc-united-nyc ^
  12. Dai, Serena and Carter, Morgan. “LES’s Already-Closed Colors Was ‘a Mess’ From the Start, Chef Says.” Eater New York. January 21, 2020. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://ny.eater.com/2020/1/21/21075153/colors-lower-east-side-roc-united-nyc ^
  13. Dai, Serena and Carter, Morgan. “LES’s Already-Closed Colors Was ‘a Mess’ From the Start, Chef Says.” Eater New York. January 21, 2020. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://ny.eater.com/2020/1/21/21075153/colors-lower-east-side-roc-united-nyc ^
  14. McMorris, Bill. “Obama Honors Union Fronts at White House Ceremony.” Washington Free Beacon. July 23, 2014. Accessed February 17, 2021. http://freebeacon.com/issues/obama-honors-union-fronts-at-white-house-ceremony/ ^
  15. Pershan, Caleb. “‘You’ve Created a Standard. But How Does That Actually Work?.’” Eater New York. January 24, 2020. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://www.eater.com/2020/1/24/21080202/colors-nyc-restaurant-roc-united-closure ^
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