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.

 

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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.

PSOU SS 14

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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,

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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.

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Last Wednesday we were proud to celebrate two individuals that mean a lot to us here at the Restaurant Opportunities Center at our annual (ish) Diner’s Guide Release (sort of).

Ok, so we had our first first dinners guide release in December of 2012 and the next one in January of 2014…just over a year later, so not exactly annually.

Additionally, we did not “release” any diner’s guides.  We have decided to not publish them on paper because they are expensive and bad for the environment.  Still, we did premier a new list of employers who have chosen to take the high-road to profitability.

Our list of good guys this year includes; Fergie’s, Grace Tavern, Monk’s, Nodding Head and the Belgian Cafe. If you don’t know, all of these places are at least partly owned by Fergus Carey, a well-known and respected restauranteur. These restaurants get a thumbs up for paying their tipped workers a wage of $5/hour in addition to any tips that they are given from customers. Though they don’t get any points in the Diner’s Guide for it, Fergie’s donates space for us to host all of our server training classes. They are awesome, for sure.

The Random Tea Room also gets accolades for paying its tipped workers more than $5/hour, serving on that employer round-table that I mentioned earlier and because they offer career advancement opportunities. Be sure to stop in their and tell them that you care!

Tequila’s Restaurant is also an exceptional employer. They pay their front-of-the-house workers $5/hour and their kitchen staff at least $10/hour. They get a triple star rating for also serving on a nation ROC committee about employer practices. Congratulations, David Suro, the owner of Tequila’s, and all the people that work there.

Another new addition to the Diner’s Guide this year is The Quick Fixx. The Quick Fixx is on South Street across from Bob and Barbara’s and they not only focus on “Chef Inspired” fastfood for the health conscience but also on running a truly sustainable business. The Quick Fixx get’s good marks from us by paying their tipped workers more than $5/hour, serving on that employment practices round-table and for offering paid sick leave.

At the party itself, we honored Pete Ellis, the owner of El Fuego Mexican Food. Pete is such a good employer, he is literally ranked beyond what our scale offers. Of good places to work, on a scale of 1-10, El Fuego is like an 11.

At El Fuego, all of the workers are paid at least $10/hour, benefit from a paid sick leave policy, internal promotions policy and work for an employer who is committed to promoting good employer practices on our national round-table.

From this week Al Dia newspaper, “ Alguna vez me ha llamado algún trabajador para avisar que está enfermo. En ocasiones yo he trabajado en su lugar, pero creo que es lo correcto”, dijo Ellis. TRANSLATION, “Sometimes a worker will call in sick. I will have to work for them (they get ½ days pay). I think it is the right thing to do.” says Ellis.

Pete also started a 401k plan with a 3% match this year, a benefit that is unheard of in the restaurant industry.

We were proud to celebrate El Fuego at this years party.

We were also excited to praise Zulekia Ellis (no relation). Zulekia as one of our most active members. She is an energetic young woman who signed up for our serve classes last year. After she finished Fine-Dining Table Service 101, she went on to complete 201 and Bar-Tending. Zulekia could have moved on from there, but instead she joined a committee to improve and market our training programs.

Zulekia is a fantastic example of grassroots leadership. That is why we were glad to make her our nominee to the National Bruce Herman Fellowship, a new fellowship created to build the leadership of restaurant workers.

We had a great time. You can join in the fun by downloading our free Diner’s Guide app at your Apple or Android app store (no Windows version, sorry) or by printing yourself an old-fashioned paper version from our website. 

I encourage justice minded individuals, organizations, unions and union law firms to host meals, events and get catering from all of these good employers. You too can help pave a high-road to sustainable work places by doing business with these restaurants. Be sure to let them know that you are purchasing their food because they treat workers right!

 

 

 

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Direct-Action Campaign Victory Serves As Example To A Growing Food Worker Justice Movement

2 of these workers went on strike on May Day to stand up against wage theft.

2 of these workers went on strike on May Day to stand up against wage theft.

Food and restaurant workers all around the country are getting organized.

Since the Great Recession millions of people lost their jobs. Meanwhile, the restaurant sector has continued to grow.

Both the people who lost their jobs (education, construction, manufacturing, retail and medical services) and new workers exiting college and high school are competing for jobs in restaurants.

With all of the organic and local items on menus, it has never been a better time to eat in our country. At the same time, this may be the worst time in a long time to be a restaurant worker.

As an example, the wages of restaurant workers in Philadelphia have declined by 11% since 2003 and nationally, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t increased since 1991.

As a result, restaurant workers are fighting back.

This year we witnessed cafeteria workers at Upenn conducting job actions despite not having a union affiliation (they recently joined the Teamsters and have a contract). Also, fast food workers starting conducting strikes at McDonald’s all across the country and tomorrow we expect hundreds of workers to conduct job actions at 100 fast food restaurants. Darden workers are speaking out against the low-wages.

Yesterday, five former workers from a popular Philadelphia sushi restaurant announced that they had reached a $40,000 settlement with their employer, showing a growing food worker movement a powerful example of how they can get organized and win.

The victory is the culmination of a unique effort started by the workers this year.

The employer was accused of taking some portion of tips from his workers with various justifications such as to cover some of the credit card usage fees and for workers not being proficient in menu knowledge.

It is pretty amazing to look back at this enormous victory and remember how it all started.

In Mid-April, Diana a ROC member and a worker at the restaurant, reached out to Philly ROC staff member, Sheila Maddali, and stated that she and a couple of her co-workers were planning on quitting in protest of the wage issues.

We convinced them to meet with us before giving their employer their quitting notice.

We met with them and gave them a short training on what their rights are as workers.

They decided to go on strike rather than quit.

The strike itself was somewhat unprecedented. Especially since the workers were not unionized. And the workers did not get fired after going on strike.”-Randy Lobasso

A couple days later, Sheila and I followed Diana, Claire and Jeff into the restaurant at 11 at night and they made their employer aware of their strike and outlined their problems with the working conditions (See earlier posts for a video of the announcement).

The next week was nerve racking for us all but as the deadline that they set for their employer approached, we were excited when more workers from the restaurant stepped forward in solidarity of their effort.

On May 1st, Claire and Diana announced their strike to the world with a small group of supporters and members of the media. In total, 13 of their fellow co-workers signed on a public statement to the restaurant owner.

These women inspired us with their courage.  No one who went on strike or signed the letter was fired as a result.

At that time the Galfand Berger,  LLC, stepped forward to offer these workers representation.

Since that time, these women have driven the negotiation process. They were also glad to get some help from their co-workers, Justine and Sean who joined this independent, work-place-justice campaign after the strike started.

I can assure you, there were times when they were scared and we at ROC were concerned for them during those sketchy moments. They were unfairly criticized by other workers in the industry on the internet, and one of them had a hard time finding another job because she had been labeled as a “trouble-maker” by some restaurant owners.

Nonetheless, they stuck together and they stayed organized and kept pressing forward, step by step.

Henry Yampolsky, an attorney from Galfand Berger LLC, represented these workers with an amazing attention to detail and a fantastic amount of energy and professionalism.

Mr. Yampolsky pointed out in this report by Pat Loew from KYW CBS Radio that they had the law on their side.

I think that they have set a good example for other restaurant and food workers across our country who want to stand up for their rights (much less the 2/3rds of workers in our country who suffer some form of wage theft).

Attorney Debra Jensen also points out that all workers can utilize the law to their advantage in this article by Randy Lobasso in the Philadelphia Weekly.

If you are a restaurant worker (or a worker from any industry) you can win your rights with the right combination of self-organization, direct-action, a solid strategy, a plan to get your message out to the public, legal support and persistence.

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Emily + me In The Daily News Today!

Emily and I got to chill wit’ Dana DiFilippo and Yung Kim, of the Daily News,  in our side lot yesterday.

It was really hot and I felt bad for the intrepid reporters as we sweated in my kitchen chatting.

They took it in stride and we had a fun conversation.

Check out the Chillin Wit’ feature here…

On this Sunday, they’re painting picnic tables in the grassy lot beside their North Philadelphia home. They’ll need the seating for Rodriguez’s father, siblings and other relatives who will share their home the week before and after the wedding.
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20130715_Chillin__Wit______Fabricio_Rodriguez.html#vuS6wDESRGBJlawW.99

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What Would MKL Do?

For years, the legacy of Rev. Ph.D., Martin Luther King Jr.’s has been watered down.  His birthday is a national holiday in which service projects are promoted.

Reverend King, however, did not change the world by filling soup bowls or cleaning up neighborhood parks.  Ph.D. King changed the world by taking on the powerful in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, the worker.

On August 28th of this year, our country will recall 50 Year Anniversary of the March on Washington For Jobs And Freedom.

That march demanded not only equality of opportunity, but also living wages for workers.

Now is the time to reclaim the historic legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. for Economic Justice!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eD_joYaasM

 

 

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I just wanted to post an update on the ongoing Fat Salmon drama.fat salmon

The good news is the wage theft has stopped, the owner is issuing legit pay stubs and no one has gotten fired.

Jack Woo, the owner will soon meet with the Strike Committee to discuss back wages.

That is the power of unity!

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Fat Salmon Strikers Statement

We are workers at Fat Salmon Sushi, a fine dining restaurant recently deemed to have Philly’s “Best Sushi” by Philadelphia Magazine. While Fat Salmon excels in its food, it falls short in its treatment of the people who prepare and serve the food.

We, the workers of Fat Salmon, have suffered numerous legal violations and affronts to our dignity. The violations we have experienced and continue to experience include, but are not limited to:

  • Withholding a percentage of server tips based on performance on menu tests
  • Paying kitchen staff with server tips
  • Not allowing breaks during shifts
  • Not distributing legitimate pay stubs with paychecks
  • Using discriminatory policies in regards to hiring and promotions

All workers deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity.

As restaurant workers, we work hard to create an enjoyable dining experience for our customers and we want our industry to continue to prosper, but we believe that it is possible to make a profit without exploiting workers. We want Fat Salmon Sushi to be a workplace that complies with the law and treats its workers with respect.

It is for these reasons that several of us have gone on strike. It is for these reasons that several others of us are signing on in solidarity with our striking co-workers. And it is for these reasons we demand:

  • A workplace free of discrimination
  • A workplace free of sexual harassment
  • An end to all wage theft — this includes only using legal tip pool arrangements, an end to withholding server tips pursuant to “tests,” and allowing hostesses to keep 100% of their credit card tips.
  • No worker, in any circumstances, shall ever receive less than the minimum wage
  • All prep work to be compensated at the non-tipped minimum wage
  • Overtime pay for workers who work over 40 hours in a week
  • Short paid breaks during shifts
  • Removal of all health & safety hazards from the kitchen
  • A printed and legitimate pay stub with each paycheck
  • A policy of promoting from within
  • Transparent documentation of pooled tips and individual tips on a nightly basis
  • Compensation for travel during weather emergencies
  • Servers are cut when their sections are empty
  • Paid sick days for workers to recover from illness or care for sick family members

 

 

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Fat Salmon....STRIKE!

Fat Salmon….STRIKE!

On May Day, International Workers’ Day, restaurant workers at Fat Salmon Sushi announced their campaign for justice at work, demanding an end to all violations of their legal rights and implementation of fair workplace policies. 

Today three restaurant workers from Fat Salmon Sushi, rated best sushi in Philadelphia by Philadelphia Magazine, publicly announced their campaign for justice and dignity at work. Fat Salmon Owner, Jack Yoo, will be notified by some of his workers in a written statement documenting the legal violations at their workplace and their demands.

On April 15, three Fat Salmon servers informed their employer that they would be going on strike, due to ongoing wage theft at the restaurant and other legal violations.

Diana A., Jeff S. and Claire T. have been on strike since that time (their names have been concealed for fear of future employment discrimination at the request of the workers).

Since then, four of their co-workers have joined them in demanding fair workplace conditions. Their demands include ending all illegal practices, such as discriminatory hiring & firing policies and wage theft.

The worker committee statement also includes proactive policies such as promoting from with-in the workforce, compensation for travel to and from work during weather emergencies, and paid sick days.

One of the primary issues the workers are fighting to resolve is an end to wage theft through the withholding of earned tips pursuant to the passage of a series of tests.

“I have been working as a server at Fat Salmon for two years and I have never received the entire amount of my tips.” said Jeff S., a Fat Salmon server.

“All servers are subject to tests on a monthly basis and in order to receive 100% of our tips, we must pass four tests. I passed all four tests and still didn’t receive my full wage. I was then subject to verbal quizzes at my boss’ whim” said Jeff S.

The workers chose not to simply quit because they wanted to make Fat Salmon a better place to work. “We don’t want to ruin the business. We just want it to be a fair business.” Stated Claire T., Fat Salmon server for 1 year.

“We work hard and deserve to be paid what we are owed and treated with respect. I’m confident we can reach a resolution that is recognizes the dignity of workers and is good for business” further stated Diana A., Fat Salmon server of 1 year.

Some of the workers will finish up the day by attending the May Day picnic at Elmwood Park in South West Philadelphia.

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Come and hear the Fat Salmon Strikers tomorrow at this historic event!

Watch the video of the workers calling the strike here -

MEDIA EVENT: Workers to read and deliver the public statement to Fat Salmon.

WHERE: N.W. Corner of Washington Square

WHEN: May 1, 2013, 2:15 (SHARP!)-2:40

THEN- Let’s go celebrate at the May Day picnic at Elmwood Park

Here is a link to a map to a the park- http://goo.gl/maps/q4YfE

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