Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Last night, Emily and our friends Jared and Tasha went to go and listen to Anna Crusis Women’s Choir. It was an amazing experience. To be honest, I was really going to support my colleague, Cecily Harwitt as I am not really into choir music. I was happily surprised by these astonishing women for not only their talent but their selection of multi-cultural songs spanning African music and even a song in Arabic. The choir also acknowledged the current protests about racism in our country before launching into a couple civil rights era songs.

The concert also featured Melanie Demore, who has one of the richest, most resonate voices I have ever heard. They play again today at 2, catch it if you can. Meanwhile, check out Mrs. Demore’s haunting rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot here http://youtu.be/tY_22UhpEdQ

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Kshama Sawant at $15 Now rally
Al-Jazeera reports that the movement for the rights of fast food workers and for a $15 minimum are gaining a lot of momentum. Strikes are expected to happen all across the country on December 4th, 2014.

The facebook page of Fight for $15 PA declares a “Fast Food STRIKE for $15, supported by airport and home care workers” will take place tomorrow at 11:30 at Arch Street Methodist Church.

The $15 Now movement got a big bounce last year after the election of Kshama Sawany, a socialist and activist from Seattle, who made a $15 minimum wage a key pillar in her platform. Seattle, now has the highest minimum wage in the country. The first raise of $11/hr. will come in April 2015 for large employers, jump to $13/hr. in January 2016, and again to $15/hr in January 2017.

Likewise, Philadelphia activists have heard some good news from local attorneys who speculate that Philadelphia may be able to get a city only minimum wage increase past our regressive state legislature. The question of whether Philadelphia could pass a separate minimum wage, different from the rest state, has been in contention since the last time the minimum wage was increased in 2006. At that time, the PA Legislature also passed a “preemption law,” to seemingly prevent progressive Philadelphian’s from getting ahead of the rest of the state for workers.

With the recent announcement of recommendations for paid sick leave, 2015 could be a big year for economic justice in Philadelphia. That would be a relief after years of watching other large cities breaking new ground with progressive experiments while we were stuck trying to keep school and libraries open.

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sick server

Mayor Nutter’s Task Force on Paid Sick Leave issued their recommendations today. If Mayor Nutter followed this groups recommendations, he and would move to bring into existence a law that would mainly effect large, low-waged corporations but would exempt at least 84% of the workers in the city who work for employers with fewer than 15 employees. The committee which included many Earned Sick Leave advocates including Marianne Bellasorte (Pathways PA), Teo Reyes (ROC) and Pete Ellis (El Fuego Restaurant). I also worked on this issue for about the last 10 years and the issue was the fulcrum for helping security officer for the independent Philadelphia Security Officers Union.

It is difficult to say exactly how many workers this will ultimately affect (if any since it is just a proposal). However, from my estimates from the last time Mayor Nutter vetoed similar legislation approximately 75% of the workers without paid sick leave are restaurant workers. Many of them work in restaurants that have 15 or fewer restaurants (I will check the 2011 Philadelphia Behind the Kitchen Door Report later to confirm). Those restaurants will be exempt. On the upside, though, employers such as McDonalds, Wal-Mart, hotels (non-union), private security officers, hair dressers (corporate chains), grocery store and retail workers (corporate and local chains) would all benefit.

I am not trying to take away from this achievement. However, here are a couple notable problems.

1. Most of the top 10 employers give their workers paid sick leave but not to their growing sub-contractor and temp work-force. (Though “Temp-Workers” are defined as “>90 days” in the report)
2. Adjunct employees, like those who teach classes at local colleges and universities, are in danger of being cut out of getting and paid sick days unless you organize to be included or form a union to bargain for such a benefit.
3. If enacted as written, workers will be exempt for 90 days after they were hired. The tenuous position of a new employee will not be helped by this law. Do not plan on getting sick for at least 3 months, though and you can start saving up!
4. Part-Time workers earning less than 15 hours per week on average during a 90 day period.
5. You will begin “saving up” paid sick time upon the date of your hire (over more than 15 hours per week on average per 90 days) but you will not be able to access it until 90 days after you were hired (NOT 90 DAYS WORKED).
6. You can save up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year.
7. You can use your sick days to take care of close family members if they are sick.
8. Your employer can request “appropriate” documentation of your being sick…you had better buy some Obamacare!
9. You can use your paid sick days if you are a victim of domestic violence.
10. You will not be paid out for any unused leave and it will not roll over (Don’t be stupid, using everyday is not “abusing” it. Better safe and healed than sorry. Stay home!).
11. Employers who are found to violate this ordinance, IF it passes as these recommendations are written, will be assessed “substantial fines” (no more specific data available).

Great work paid sick leave leaders! Now, let’s get ready to pass this beyond a Mayoral order and make it law!

Download the report here- https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1wJ2QYhGq5YdjZFc3VFRGVSbDQ/view?usp=sharing


Honor “The Navajo Way”

Not Columbus’ “Discovery”

Navajo women in traditional dress.  Photo by Sam Lowe

Navajo women in traditional dress. Photo by Sam Lowe

About a month ago, I was given the honor of co-teaching a class at the University of Pennsylvania as a guest lecturer of Andy Lamas Ph.D. and with Anthony Montiero, Ph.D.

The class, on “Liberation and Ownership” is an exciting look at the concepts of racial, gender identity, and class through a critical and radical lens. It is a profound experience to teach and learn in the shadows of these two brilliant scholars.

A few weeks back, Dr. Lamas asked me to share a story about my Navajo grandparents as a lead-in to a guest lecture by Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who just published the The Indigenous People’s History of the United States.”

Check out the book trailer here-


I rarely talk about this part of my life, and it was not easy to do.

However, as Dr. Dubar-Ortiz declares, in order to transform our society into a more just one, a society that lives up to the values that we claim, we have to dispel the lies that we have all comfortably accepted.

Acknowledging that our nation was built on slavery, genocide, and land theft makes many people – specifically many white people – uncomfortable. It also makes many non-white people uncomfortable.

It makes me uncomfortable.

One dismisses these perspectives as “revisionist history,” as if all histories must not be “revised” when new information is gathered.

I get no righteous joy out of the fact that my indigenous roots, family, and culture have almost vanished from the earth.

In class, I shared the following remembrance of my Grandma and Grandpa. I share it with you as well, my reader, on this Columbus Day, not to honor one man’s “discovery,” but to honor my ancestors and the historic resistance of a people.

The Navajo Way

When I was a kid, we would occasionally visit my grandmother and grandfather on the reservation. I remember driving for hours and hours through dusty desert. My brother David and I would be playing games with my mom, hanging over the front seat of the Ford Granada as we traveled for miles and laughed while my dad drove in silence.

We would arrive in the tiny village of Greasewood, Arizona, usually at dusk. We lived in Grants, New Mexico, which was also a small town that now, somehow, seemed huge in comparison. Greasewood claimed perhaps a couple hundred people. It may as well have been on another planet.

Once the sun had set, the desert would turn freezing cold. The sky would explode with a million stars and the village would be almost completely dark and silent.

You could hear a distant neighbor’s TV from blocks away.

In Grants, due to the abundance of street lights and video games, my brother and I could keep playing with friends often until 9 pm if our parents let us, which they often did, since most of the families on my block knew each other.

In Greasewood, though, it was dark and quiet and the children were all indoors.

At the foot of the bed where my parents slept, my brother and I shivered in sleeping bags, scared to death by the sound of coyotes howling somewhere off in the distance.

During the days, though, we would run around and play with other kids. The whole desert was our playground. We would run from house to house with a pack of little boys and girls, our light brown faces smiled among the Navajo kids with straight black hair and rich brown complexions.

The town was small and strange. It was like an outpost only partially completed. I recall many houses that lacked windows and doors. Navajo rugs hung by nails over door frames.

Unlike back in Grants, we didn’t have Nintendos to play with out there. Instead we chased lambs around, sometimes straight though a family’s home, dozens of us storming past the blankets in the front and out the open back door, hopping over piles of fire wood, all of us screaming and laughing.

My Grandmother Elizabeth and Grandpa Mercede were as strange to me as this town in the middle of nowhere.

They would talk to each other in Diné, their native language that sounds swishy and like the words bounce off the back of their throats.

Grandma was always boisterous with a huge laugh. My mother was like her, always playing mischievous games with the world. They would laugh at each other, and at punch-lines that no one else could understand. Grandma was what my 7 Indian aunts used to call “Res to the max.” They would laugh (lovingly) behind her back.

My aunts were city Navajos who lived in Albuquerque. I would think of their words when we would visit. I wasn’t sure what they meant by the slight they muttered, just that it was some sort of joke about my grandparents.

Grandma was very traditional. She wore 3 or 4 layers of Navajo dresses. They were beautiful, rich blues, and reds, a velvet dress on top of a satin one, on top of royal velvet cascades of fabric. She wrapped her wrists in silver and turquoise. She had a belt of leather, beads of bone and coral. Grandma’s thick, black braid went all the way down her back.

Grandpa was quiet. He didn’t speak much English. He always wore a black Stetson Cowboy hat and a thick leather belt with a big silver and turquoise buckle. Grandpa was skinny and bowlegged. He used to put us on his knee and bounce us up and down. He would have us pretend that we were riding a pony.

After a few days we would go back to Grants. I would smell like mutton, the greasy meat of the full grown sheep, for days after we returned.

We wouldn’t hear from my grandparents after we came back. They had no phone and the rare phone call from them from a gas station pay phone usually signaled bad things.

But once in a while, every summer or two, they would…just appear.

I remember how exciting it was to wake up and find their black and silver Ford F-150 parked in front of our house.

I remember my father waking me up and telling me to go and wake up my grandparents.

David and I would run out and open up the camper shell on the truck to find them sleeping in the back of the pickup, on top of layer and layers of blankets, holding each other in the cold New Mexico mornings.

One time, David and I opened the camper to find Grandma cuddling a small lamb. The young ewe woke before she did, swinging up her furry little head before my grandmother moved to the joyful shrieks of my brother and me.

We played with the little creature for a few days before Dad and Grandpa strung her up by her back legs on the clothesline post and slit her throat.

I was saddened by the slaughter, but I had also been taught that it was natural. Grandma prayed and thanked the small sheep, thanking her for her life and her sacrifice. She burned sage and rubbed the smoke into the ewe’s wool, calming her before her death.

Later, when it was time to go, my parents enacted the faux drama of begging them to stay inside with for us for a few days.

Grandma would always claim that they were on their way somewhere else to visit one of our other relations somewhere in the sprawling desert or in the city.

Nevertheless, they would always move inside with us and stay for a few days, until they ultimately departed.

My Grandma’s ways were a mystery to me.

She called her wanderings: “going the Navajo way.”

In hindsight, 30 years later, I realize it was probably because she and my grandfather were suffering hard times.

When they got low on food or money, they would take their last resources and head out on the road, boarding with us, my aunts and uncles, or with some friends off in the distance, real or invented.

Nonetheless, in her mind, my grandmother was doing as our ancestors had for thousands of years before: moving, following the resources as the seasons changed and fortunes went dim.

Whether she was chasing the herds, free beneath the bright blue skies, or whether she and Grandpa were running from poverty and hunger with their belongings tied up in shopping bags, eating cold vegetables out of tin cans, is a difference that now pains me to distinguish.

They would stay for just a few days.

Grandma. in her other-worldly ways, would wake up before the dawn and wander the alleyways of our town picking up junk. She would erect a pile of little things that she hoped to sell in a corner of our backyard: hubcaps, aluminum cans, bottles that she thought looked pretty or useful.

Then, one day, we would wake up and she would be gone.

Disappeared. Kind of like the Navajo to most of us today.

She lived the Navajo way.

In our modern context, that means that she lived on “The Res.” One with her people, strong in her traditions, but in utter poverty.

Or, she would wander, feeling a connection to our ancestors, an alien in the white man’s world, out of context. Living in spiritual death.

The same dilemma for what is left of traditional indigenous people this nation.

Still, I look back and admire that she had within her, to her last breath, the desire to resist. to exist outside of the place that our society had prescribed for her.

She could not be held back by the parcels. She would not be forgotten. She wandered freely.

Looking back, I learned from her that I should never be proscribed a role or resigned to disappear. I stand with others who refuse to be ignored. “Columbus Day” is a day to condemn the dehumanization of other people. It is a day to celebrate those who demand freedom and a dignified life.

To me, this is the true meaning of this day.

WATCH: John Oliver Asks, “Columbus Day, How Is That Still A Thing?”



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gunYesterday, I attended a meeting in North Philadelphia in which community leaders expressed their desperate desire to intervene in the recent rash of violence in the region.

It was a sad meeting.  It was clear that the ministers that were leading it sincerely wanted to stop the gun violence.  The community is in pain.  It has been for a while.  Decades of neglect and under-investment are now only acknowledged when women, children or an innocent, pregnant woman are caught in the crossfire.

The meeting was filled with rage and frustration.

Though I don’t doubt that the intentions of the conveners, I left feeling more frustrated than when I arrived.

The ministers that ran the meeting made it clear that we were not there to debate what was to be done.  We were there to plan a march and a cook-out as a means to discourage the drug dealers in the community to stop killing other people.

I am not trying to make fun of these leaders.  Of course I understand that no one at the meeting thought that the march itself, which is to take place on October 4th at 12 noon starting at Germantown and Allegheny, is not going to stop the violence.  Our hosts did say that this was the first step and that the real work will take place after that march.  The march is supposed to bring people together and then after that, we will figure out what would come next.

Nonetheless, I left feeling tense about the main suggestion that did come forward- the Gun Buy Back scheme.

I have heard of these programs and I have always thought that they sounded nonsensical.


If you had to use a gun to protect your “turf” or to kill your competition (as drug dealers apparently do), and that is how this trade works, why would you ever swap your gun for a bag of groceries?  The gun is probably worth more in cash to other drug dealers than the grocerys you would be swapping them for.

Other city’s that have conducted these have found that most of the guns that were turned in were already non-operational.

I offer you this illustrative example; in my neighborhood we have a problem with illegal scrapers.  These thieves break into empty houses and steal all of the pipes and wiring and sell them for scrap.  Does it make sense to offer to buy all of their hammers and crowbars?

I don’t mean to over simplify the problem of gun violence either.  Violence is extremely complicated and I wouldn’t even pretend to offer solutions.  I don’t understand it.  I would never use violence and don’t know any one who would.

However, it feels instinctive to me to at least look at the fact that North Philadelphia lacks dignified labor as a major problem.  From this problem many bad symptoms arise from drug and substance abuse, prostitution, drug dealing, illegal guns and violence.

Even if there were good jobs for all, there would still be elements of all of those things but probably far fewer incidents.

Sadly, we didn’t get into any deeper issues at this meeting.

In fact, the last band-aid solution posed as we left was to partner with Temple Hospital to give the community free “First Responder” classes specifically for gun shot victims. Talk about about dealing with symptoms.

I cross my fingers that the next meeting goes a different direction.





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“Organizing,” or the act of bri


nging people together to improve their conditions, is a delicate balance of ingredients.  ”Anger” is a common well spring for action.  Have you ever noticed how common it is to see this displayed at union rallys?  Union leaders stand at  the podium and bellow hoarsely into the bullhorn and wrap it up with a chant.

“Anger,” as Zach Dela Rocha put it, “is a gift.


It is true that anger motivates people to make change.  However, I have always found that anger is a heavy emotion to carry.  It does motivate, but if anger is not turned toward hope then it will wear you out.

Emerging from hope, that energy can inspire us if we can embedded it in a set of “values.”

If their is one thing I attribute my longevity to as an organizer it is that I am motivated now by a set of principles and not solely by anger.

I had a great discussion about this switch one day with the well-respected Journalist, Randy Lobasso.

Mr. Lobasso wanted to meet up and discuss my recent switch from the Restaurant Opportunity Center and how I found myself at POWER.

I attributed most my desire to move to POWER because of the organizations focus on values as a frame for action.

POWER is under the leadership of Bishop Dwayne Royster, “We’re really trying to change politics,” he says. “People’s politics aren’t translating to City Council, much less Harrisburg, in the way people live. Putting [issues] in a moral framework actually brings people together in ways that hasn’t been done in Philly in a while. I think that’s reflected in the [minimum wage] vote.”

Read more: http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/The_Moral_Imperative-263547841.html#ixzz3CkYiBDE2

In any case, it is a great article and Mr. Lobasso spells out how important moral framing is in organizing and how different it is compared to the approach of most progressive groups.

It is a great article and it gives POWER a lot of deserved credit for the huge living wage victory in May.  This effort could not have succeeded without the work of  SEIU 32 BJ, the Working Families Party, Action United and UNITE HERE.

Sadly, I have to be careful of sharing this article with people who are new to POWER though.  The Editor, thought it would be funny to give the article a splashy title- “Hey, liberal activists—try arguing basic morality instead of wonky bullshit.”

Due to the curse word, I can’t refer new folks to it as they are often offended by, “bullshit.”  I work around this by only giving it out as a print out and by blacking out the offending word with a marker.

Mr. Lobasso did a great job title non-withstanding.





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IMG_20140424_132354602_1On May 4th, the Daily News published a glowing biographical profile about me written by Ronnie Polaneczky.

I was stunned when I read it. It is a beautiful and flattering portrait for sure.

A few of my friends saw it and quickly posted it to my Facebook. I “liked” their notices and then it hit me, “Will I seem vain if I draw attention to it? Is so, should I mention it?”  It seemed kind of weird.

After thinking about it for the month I concluded that, yes, I will seem proud to repost this article and HELL YEAH I SHOULD re-post it!

How can I not? This is the highest and kindest recognition of my work that I have ever received!

Ronnie’s portrait is wonderfully thorough, covering, the event during my mining days that turned me into an organizer, several victories I’ve been fortunate enough have been a part of and even my new job with Philadelphian’s Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER).  Mrs. Polaneczky frames my work by the locations of my various campaigns of the the years…

…Rodriguez and I could’ve flown to Juneau, Ala., and chatted near the silver mine where he once toiled alongside his father. They pushed their employer to honor the law allowing miners the right to wash their hands before lunch and to eat their meal in a clean place. Father and son got fired for their trouble, but three years later the rights they’d demanded were finally enforced…We could’ve met on the campus of Temple, Penn or Drexel, or on the steps of the Philly Art Museum…at each institution Rodriguez organized protests by security guards … which resulted in the creation of the Philadelphia Security Officers Union…”


It is fantastic. I am extremely honored.

A friend of mine helped my finally understand what a big deal this was when he told me, “Your children will read this some day.”


Basking in this spotlight for a couple of weeks really made me feel good. It made me think that the labor and social justice movement doesn’t do enough to appreciate each other and the work that we do together! We would all do well to be celebrated more often.Bread and Roses Community Fund is one of the few organizations that celebrates organizers at their annual Tribute To Change event.  This year it will be on June 24.  Be sure to by tickets and celebrate our local heroes.  Here is a link where you can learn more- http://breadrosesfund.org/tribute-to-change/

Then, as I was pondering how happy I felt being appreciated, I saw a wonderful video by Soul Pancake. The video does a small test based on a scientific study that found that we are most happy when we tell those that we love and admire how much they mean to us. WATCH IT AND SPREAD THE LOVE-

Thank you, Ronnie. Thank you for this wonderful article. Thank you for reminding me how important it is to make those around us happy, just as you have done for me.

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Photo by Kimberly Paytner, WHYY

Photo by Kimberly Paytner, WHYY.

…and the pastor asks the Rabbi, “What’s up with the frog?”  And, the rabbi says, “Did you know that you can vote to change the city charter on May 20th so that Philadelphia contractors and sub-contractors will receive a living wage?”…

It’s no joke people.  You really can!

WHYY did a nice piece on the effort of POWER to get the votes out in a off year election.  I was happy to hear that they feature Reverend Bernice Baxter, one of my leaders from Harold O’Davis church.

The canvassing is “just to get some face-to-face contact so people know that we’re real and we’re serious about the importance of the primary.” said Rev. Baxter

I lead the training and they went out and talked to the neighborhood. Another team of faith leaders canvassed in the afternoon and teams of lay-leaders (read: church/synagogue members) are canvassing every day between now and the election (MAY 20).

The support for Ballot Issue #1, Living Wages for city contractor and sub-contractors has received overwhelming support form the people that we have spoken too.

City residents are equally excited about our plans to launch a campaign for a Full, Fair Funding Formula for Pennsylvania schools in the fall.

We had a powerful rally on this issue last Friday.  Check out the video here

and here  http://fabriciorodriguez.tumblr.com/post/85244601091/students-and-ministers-marching-in-protest-of










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It isn’t accurate to call this news any more, I guess.  It has been almost 2 months since I stepped down from ROC.

If you didn’t know, you may be confused by my recent quote in the Spring Edition of Edible Philly that just hit newsstands last week, in which I talk about the state of the restaurant industry-

“Everybody likes to brand themselves as being sustainable,” says Rodriguez. He thinks restaurant buzzwords like “sustainable” don’t mean much when the values implied don’t extend to the people who work there. “It doesn’t make any sense to have locally grown lettuce if the person putting the salad together has to go to work when they’re sick.”

Pick one up.  The extensive expose was courageously written by Emily Teel, herself a local restaurant server and journalist.

Don’t let the article fool you though, I began talking with Ms. Teel late last year.  I stepped down as the Lead Organizer at Philly ROC in February.

My new job, as an organizer with Philadelphian’s Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER, a PICO affiliate) is a return to my old roots.

See the announcement on the POWER website here!

During my days as the Executive Director of Jobs with Justice (from 2003- 2008ish) I was also the coordinator of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).  I have always been a rampant “networker.”  In fact, in that capacity, I attended the first national meeting of the Restaurant Opportunities Center in the national offices in Chicago (around 2006?).

Anyway, in my time at Jobs with Justice, which I loved, I also noticed that faith communities organized in a entirely different way than my friends in the labor movement.

Though this is not universally true, I think that faith communities organize based on the strength of their relationships, where (often) labor communities organize on the strength of a plan or end goal.

Maybe it is simply a difference of style that works for me , but I have always found that “relational” style refreshing and extremely powerful.

This came to bare in a major way during the Philadelphia Officers and Workers Rising (POWR!) campaign to organize security officers campaign.

The POWR campaign was hosted and sustained by the faith community.  In the darkest moments, JWJ had to lay off all of the staff.

Eduardo and I had to survive on contributions from our family and friends (and my girlfriend at the time, and now wife, Emily Randle) and unemployment checks.

It was the hopes, love, support and prayers of security officers and our friends in the faith community like Rev. Dwayne Royster, Rev. Jay Broadnax, Rev. Schaunel Steinnagel, Rev. Andrew Plotcher, Rev. Beverely Dale and many more that got us through.

The POWR campaign got its only financial resource (post-JWJ) from the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Bread and Roses Community Fund.

I learned a lot from these leaders and we accomplished amazing things together.  The effort to win paid sick days evolved into wage theft campaigns and eventually into the independent Philadelphia Security Officers Union (PSOU).

Since that time, the PSOU has won more than $2 million in wage (extremely conservative estimate), benefit and working condition improvements in the city and is still representing security officers well at the Museum, UPenn and the Riverfront.

Most of all, though, I will never forget that moment when I witnessed the power of faith.










After months of trying to vault our message of “the workers need paid sick days” over the official wall that guarded the Temple University Board of Trustees, Rev. Dwayne Royster caused what I will always remember as the “Holy Disruption.”

At this rally on December 10, 2008, the Reverend stood in front of the police that were blocking the door to the Board of Trustees meeting, preventing us from communicating like they had so many times before.

Dwayne spoke about how God had called on so many before to disrupt their lives for the greater good, how Mary had to disrupt her life to give birth to Jesus.

At that, he called on us hundred or so protesters, and even the police, to disrupt the meeting for justice.

At that, Reverend (now a Bishop) turned around, faced the police and began marching toward the door.

I was dumbfounded when the police moved away from the doors.

We marched in.










We lined the stairwell and the doors.  We sang and we prayed, and when the police warned us to leave, we locked arms and sang louder.

Only when the paddy wagons pulled up and zip ties were laid at our feet did we exit.

I knew at that time that I wanted to be a part of this world.

I am proud to now organize for an organization lead by Bishop Dwayne Royster and am looking forward to organizing for POWER,


1, 159 current and former Chickie’s & Pete’s workers will be awarded back wages and damages from a $6.8 million dollar award. The consent judgment, one of the largest awards ever recorded in the region, includes back wages from multiple wage and hour violations. The case stemmed from the passage of the Gratuities Protection law that ROC lead on in 2011.  It was at that time (and sadly still is in many Center City restaurants) common practice for an employer to take 3% out of a tip that was put on your credit or debit card to cover the overhead cost of the privileged of accepting credit/debit as a form of payment.

An additional $1.6 million was awarded in a private lawsuit and a wooping $50,000 in damages, less than 1% of total wages stolen, were awarded to the D.O.L.

The investigation found that the employer, Pete Ciarrocchi, was taking 3% of tips when they were charged to a credit card, not paying minimum wage and over-time (1.5 x wages after 40 hours) and even cases of restaurant workers have to pay cash out of their pockets to the owner and into the tip pool just for working their shift.

This is an enormous victory, not only for the workers, Department and Labor, the law firms involved but for all restaurant workers across Philadelphia.

This story has been evolving for a while.

Chickie’s and Pete’s workers were among some of the first workers to join the Restaurant Opportunities Center in September 2011. 2 women from the airport restaurant attended one of our “Know Your Right’s” trainings and had many stories of how they often would not make the minimum wage and how they faced constant sexual harassment on the job.  They also complained that their employer was taking 3% of their tips to cover credit card usage fees.

After the training, one of them told me that she would bring more of her co-workers in to learn about their rights.

I did keep in touch with them but they told me that their co-workers were too scared to even come to our office to learn about their rights.

At around the same time, Andrea Lemoins and I were working with Councilman James Kenney’s office to pass the Gratuities Protection Bill. This bill would make it illegal for an employer (not only restaurant owners) to take any tips away from workers.

I recall at the time that the opposition to this law was strong, but very subtle. Restaurant owners were speaking against it but only from Council office to Council office and never in front of the public hearings.

Marc Vetri warned on twitter that it would cost Stephen Starr $300,000 per year if it went through (way to out a friend for tip stealing, ouch!).

Councilman Green tried to justify his vote against it saying that he thought that it was a “backdoor tax” that would drive restaurants our of the city. This is, of course, the same claim made about everything from ending child labor, to the smoking ban, to paid sick leave, to not having to even pay the minimum wage (the tipped minimum wage is only $2.83/hour in PA).

Nonetheless, it passed the Philadelphia City Council, on Nov 15th, 2011 with only Councilman Green and Councilman O’Neil standing up for wage theft in it’s purest form (Picture an owner taking a tip of a table and putting it in his pocket).

By the second week in December of 2011, the two Chickie’s and Pete’s workers confirmed to me that the owner was indeed ignoring the law and still taking 3% of their tips.

The first domino fell.

Honestly, when the law first passed, we had no idea of it’s potential impact. Councilman Kenney, I believe, advocated for the bill out of moral repulsion at the thought of his tip not going to his server. We say it as a strong campaign and a big opportunity (this victory has returned at least 10 million in wages to workers since 2011).

Over the next 6 months, I met with several more workers from various Chickie’s and Pete’s locations who wanted to fight back. Most of them got cold feet never to be heard from again, some of them joined the lawsuits that were were starting to hear about and one of them remains a leader at ROC.

Since that time, I know of at least 3 lawsuits against employers for the illegal practice of taking the 3% of tips to pay for credit cards usage fees.

More and more dominos followed, all prompted by the growing knowledge that it is illegal to make servers pay the credit card usage fees, most growing into other types of wage theft as more details came out.

Sadly, this practice is still wide spread. In fact, 2/3rds of restaurant workers in our city have suffered some form of wage theft in the last year.

Hopefully, with campaigns like Fat Salmon and now Chickie’s and Pete’s setting an example the consequences that employers can face, this will begin to change.