The restaurant workers who were fired and locked out of their store for organizing a union have won after a week of escalating protests outside the Manhattan cafe. Saturday afternoon, the owner declared that he had bowed to the workers demands to reopen the store, rehire all the workers and recognize their newly formed union, an inspiring labor victory at a time when many are attacking the power of unions.
The 23 workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, which is one of a string of 24-hour cafes in New York City, have been organizing against the chain's exploitative boss for nearly a year. After enduring below minimum wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, the workers reached out to labor organizations and began attending Occupy Wall Street meetings last fall. With the support of OWS and the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organizing group, the workers organized an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in backpay and safer workplace conditions.
Two weeks ago, however, the workers learned that the owner, private equity investor Mark Samson, planned to close the restaurant and fire all the workers. Incensed by the retaliation, which the Hot and Crusty Workers Association’s lawyers said was illegal because it was intended to discourage organizing at other restaurants in the chain, the workers and community members occupied the restaurant for hours last Friday. They held a workers’ assembly inside the occupied store until the police arrived and arrested six people who refused to leave.
On Monday, the workers opened their own restaurant, the Worker Justice Cafe, on the sidewalk outside the now chained-shut store. Run democratically and supported by other NYC unions, including 32BJ and the Domestic Workers United, they served coffee, bagels, donuts and other pastries on a donation basis. After four days of a 12-hour picket and the afternoon cafe, the company’s lawyers called for negotiations.
They thought that we were going to leave and just find other work, and that we weren't going to take action,” said Mahomar Lopez, one of the workers leading the campaign.
The Hot and Crusty Workers Association shunned initial offers because the company said that the union wouldn’t extend to future workers, who would be forced to demonstrate U.S. work permits. The majority of the present Hot and Crusty workers are undocumented, and they refused to win their rights at the expense of future workers.
On Saturday afternoon, the company ceded to the association’s demands. The workers and company’s lawyers signed an agreement that the store would reopen within 15 days, all workers would be reinstated and management will recognize the Hot and Crusty Workers Association for present and future employees. The union gives the workers the right to control future hirings of other workers, while the company retains the right to hire managers.
The workers were elated, but a little skeptical--especially after months of negotiating with Samson’s bitterly anti-labor lawyers.
“Until I see it I don't believe it. Sincerely, I want to be positive but there are a lot strange things that have happened. They might be hiding something up their sleeves,” said Lopez.
Supporters from Occupy Wall Street saw this as a historic victory, as long as the company keeps its end of the agreement.
“Given the weak public perception of unions, this is an incredible victory,” said Diego Ibanez, one of the supporting organizers. “This is Occupy Wall Street’s support at its best: supporting a worker-led struggle to fight Wall Street where it attacks our communities the most.”
The workers said that the picket will remain in place until the store reopens, calling for continued support until everyone is back at work. Meanwhile, organizing efforts are beginning at other branches of the Hot and Crusty chain.