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Labor & Worker Rights Tue Jul 21 2009

Restaurant Opportunity Center wants to advocate for restaurant workers

The labor movement can talk all it wants about EFCA, but the fact remains that millions of workers need to be organized, in industries that have never been heavily unionized and where high-turnover and class and race divisions make organizing extremely difficult. No real model exists for organizing, say, low-level white collar workers like telemarketers in a given market. Similarly, and more aggravatingly no model exists for organizing service staff in the food and retail industries, particularly as regional and national chains have come to dominate those industries.

Talk to somebody who has spent time organizing or thinking about new and necessary organizing models for the economy of today, and they'll start in on retail and restaurants. These are some of the most exploited workers in our economy and are generally treated miserably, with extremely low job security, zero benefits, and "wages" that essentially rely on patron generosity. It has been generally recognized that the only way to really organize this industry is to start with a geographic location and build industry wide identity first, rather than just try to organize "hot shops" one at a time, diffusing manpower and resources and making it extremely easy for employers to fire activists and blacklist them from other jobs. Only by taking on the industry across a given market could you ever hope to exert enough pressure to force them to recognize their workers' rights. In order to do any kind of market-wide effort, you need to first build identity and solidarity among workers in the industry.

So Local journalist Kari Lydersen's article about the Restaurant Opportunity Center piqued my interest. The ROC is clearly trying to raise the level of awareness among service industry workers while providing them the tools to advocate for themselves in the workplace. While a huge number of service industry workers are transient types--who don't consider the job a career and would rather just quit a shitty job than fight for improvements in the workplace--a not insignificant number, particularly in big cities, work in the service industry much of their lives. If you wait tables or bartend for a decade or longer, that is a significant part of your adult life where your work is being undervalued and you are receiving little or no benefits. Having a local focal point for advocacy around these issues, creates an opportunity to raise consciousness and probe the potential for organizing the industry.

Lydersen's piece is up at In These Times' new "Working" blog.

The industry represents 13.5 million workers, according to ROC, and aside from farmworkers, its wages and working conditions are the worst in the country. Less than one percent of restaurant staff are unionized, and fewer than one in 10 have health insurance or paid sick days.

ROC seeks to change this through a three-pronged strategy that includes targeting the worst employers, lauding and working with the best employers, and changing federal law to protect all restaurant workers. In terms of individual workplaces, ROC focuses only on fine-dining establishments, with the idea that these set the standard for the whole industry, and gains in workers' rights and wages will trickle down to casual dining (like Applebees or Denny's) and "quick serve" (fast-food) establishments.

The ROC is specifically NOT a union; it doesn't appear that they are actually aiming for a collective bargaining future, but rather just building enough of a spirit of advocacy among the service industry workers to introduce legal reforms and requirements and shame employers into treating their workers better. But even if ROC's mission isn't to organize the industry, if they do their job right, collective bargaining is the next natural step.

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