Kitchen Nightmare: Restaurant 'Alt-Labor' Groups In Bitter Civil War

Kitchen Nightmare: Restaurant 'Alt-Labor' Groups In Bitter Civil War

For more than a decade, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) has been at the vanguard of labor’s new strategy to reverse decades of declining membership. Organized as a 501 (c)3 non-profit, rather than as a traditional labor union, ROC-NY has tried to “organize” New York City’s restaurant workers to agitate for higher wages and changes in workplace rules. It is now locked in a bitter war for its survival with ROC-United, a national offshoot created by one of ROC-NY’s original co-founders, who is trying to take over the local organization.

ROC-NY was founded in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, by surviving members of the World Trade Center restaurant, Windows on the World. With funding from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, ROC ostensible purpose was to help workers displaced by the economic disruption following the terrorist attack. Under the leadership of immigration lawyer Saru Jayaraman and former WOW waiter Fekkak Mamdouh, that mission quickly expanded. 

The New York Press reported, just two years after ROC’s founding:

Saru Jayaraman has a more radical project in her sights…Her goal is nothing short of a revolution for one of New York City’s largest industries: food service…This effort has since evolved into the more ambitious (and less reported) goal of organizing the 99 percent of the industry that’s non-union.

There is a good reason ROC-NY wouldn’t want a lot of public attention on its goal of organizing restaurant workers into a union; such a mission would be legally questionable. Organizations seeking to unionize a workplace face a host of guidelines and restrictions set by the National Labor Relations Board. As a non-profit, social welfare organization, ROC-NY would be exempt from these federal laws. 

Former NY Attorney General Dennis Vacco wrote:

ROC-NY’S APPARENT union organizing efforts would represent a huge legal problem for a nonprofit entity. As a nonprofit corporation, ROC-NY is entitled to special tax treatment (i.e., it pays no taxes) and enjoys the benefits of tax-deductible contributions.

Simply put, ROC-NY is abusing the favorable tax treatment it receives and what’s worse, it is using donations that are tax deductible to the contributor to then go out and attack businesses throughout New York.

In fact, when ROC-NY initially applied for (c)3 status with the IRS, the agency initially advised that it would be more appropriate for the organization to to file as a (c)5 labor union. ROC-NY eventually won its tax-exempt status, however.  

In 2008, Jayaraman and Mamdouh left ROC-NY to found ROC-United, a national umbrella organization that would establish ROC affiliates in cities across the country. Although ROC-NY and ROC-United are legally separate entities, the national ROC started a “unification” process last to bring greater centralized control. 

ViceNews reported:

But starting about a year ago, insiders say, Jayaraman didn’t want to lose control. Instead of converting the national organization into a confederation of locals, she raised philanthropic funds to hire a larger staff that dictates policies and procedures to the locals with the exception of ROC-NY, which operates independently. A further difference between the flagship New York chapter and the national organization is that the former has a governing board elected by its worker members, while the national board members serve by appointment.

According to ROC-NY, merger talks between the two organizations began amicably. On May 8, ROC-NY wrote to its members:

ROC-United (a national organization that is a separate legal entity from us) had approached ROC-NY about a potential merger. We decided to give this matter full consideration, but merging with ROC-United is a big decision – one that we do not take lightly. It would mean dissolving our legal status as an independent organization, and so we tried our very best to carefully navigate it.

ROC-NY says that ROC-United tried to force the organization to file an agreement to merge and, when ROC-NY, demurred, the national organization cut off all communications. The day after ROC-NY updated its members on the breakdown in merger talks, ROC-United issued a press release hailing the “merger.”

ROC United is pleased to announce that after countless meetings among our members, staff, and board, a national unification process has been adopted in which we are deepening worker representation in national governance through local leadership boards and a national leadership network. Through this process, many NY members, high-road employers, and staff have decided to join a new united ROC, continuing to conduct programs for workers including job-training classes, and we feel well positioned to make great gains for restaurant workers. 

ROC-NY’s Board of Directors reasserted days later that they had not agreed to become an affiliate of ROC-United. 

[ROC-United’s] statements are simply not true. The majority of ROC-NY’s staff is still here with us, including our executive director, and they are continuing to operate our programs. Our members and partners continue to be a part of ROC-NY’s work. While we are sad about the recent events between ROC-NY and ROC-United and the confusion it has caused our members and supporters, we want to make clear that ROC-NY did not merge with ROC-United.

A former ROC-United employee, Yvonne Yen Lui, said in a email, obtained by ViceNews, that the national office was “trying to annihilate and subsume the New York office.” She added, “staff have tried to push against the centralization. A staff organizer was fired, as a result.”

Kevin Park, a ROC-NY board members said, “ROC-United’s actions are troubling and only serve to hurt workers. Bullying tactics and threats have no place in our movement. I will always stand with ROC-NY, and I call on others to do the same.”