ROC Confidential: Exposé of a Social Movement NGO

ROC Confidential

The presence of social movement NGO’s cannot be missed within the American political landscape. And while they have faced well deserved critiques with the publishing of works such as The Revolution Will Not Be Funded or the related Accomplices Not Allies, there still remains much to unpack on all the ways they work against building the power from below we need. This piece by a food service worker and organizer on the Restaurant Opportunities Center is an important contribution.

By Jean-Carl Elliott

From the time I was 14 years old until the time I turned 30, the only jobs I had ever held were in the food service industry. At 30, when I got offered a job as an organizer at a non-profit worker center called Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), I thought that I had achieved my dream job. Not only was it a salaried position with insurance and a retirement plan, but I would be fighting full-time on behalf of the low-wage workers, single parents, immigrants and other marginalized people that I had gotten to know through all the places I had worked.

It took four long years before I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to do that working at ROC. Despite their glossy brochures, big budgets, staffers and other resources, I now believe that non-profits are a dead end for social movements and for aspiring organizers. It wasn’t until I quit my job at ROC and decided to organize directly with my coworkers at a small restaurant that I really began to grasp what real worker power could look like. 


In 2012, I was a waiter at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Detroit, which is part of the second-biggest restaurant conglomerate in the US, Brinker International. During a pre-shift meeting, the managers handed out paperwork to everyone and said we had to sign it. The line at the top read “Agreement to Arbitrate” and it had a bunch of language about waiving my right to participate in lawsuits.

I asked my manager why we were signing this and if I could take a few days to think about it. He said, “When you first got hired, you signed one of these with your paperwork. I think corporate just wants another one so that we can have one in our store office and one at the corporate office.” Seemed sketchy, so I just said “okay” and went and worked my shift. That night after work, I went to the parking lot and called a friend. He was involved with a bunch of different activist groups, so I wanted his input. I said, “Hey man, I’m working at a restaurant right now and it’s really sketchy and fucked up. Do you know of any restaurant unions in the area?” He said that there weren’t any to his knowledge, but there was an organization called ROC which had organized workers at a local restaurant a couple years back and that I should contact them. As soon as we got off the phone, I called the number on their website and left a voicemail.

I didn’t even really know what organizing was or even how unions actually worked. I just sort of figured that when things got bad at work, you “called in the union.” Then some rowdy people would show up and then by some weird alchemy you got what you wanted.

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Federal minimum wage for tipped workers such as restaurant servers has remained at $2.13 since 1991.

“Time to Kick Some Ass”: Joining ROC

The next day, I was contacted by a ROC organizer and was asked to come to a new member orientation. I was able to meet their staff and a local attorney. I told them about what was going on and they said that I had the right to see my employee file and make copies of anything that was in there. I thought, “Cool, now I know my rights. Time to kick some ass.”

At work, I went straight to the general manager and said, “I’d like to see my employee file and make a copy of the arbitration agreement I signed.” I thought he would give me a hard time and then I would say, “I have a right to see it!” but he didn’t even flinch and said, “Great. We can make a copy after your shift.” After my shift, we made a copy and he smiled at me and I thanked him and left. When I got home, I went to my girlfriend and said, “Okay, you read me the new one and I’ll follow along with the old one to see if they match.” She started reading and everything matched up verbatim, but then she read a part that wasn’t in the old copy. It was about class action lawsuits. I did a Google search for the name of my company, plus “class action lawsuit,” and sure enough, they were being sued by workers at their other locations.

I was gonna make a big fuss about this because I knew my rights and I was a member of ROC and it was time to stand up!

The next day at the pre-shift meeting, the managers reminded us about needing to sign the arbitration agreement. I raised my hand and asked, “Are we signing these because of the East Coast class action lawsuits this company is facing?” They calmly replied that it was because of the reasons stated before and said it was time to end the meeting. I thought, “Alright. I just scared the shit out of them. It’s about to go down now.” My manager stopped me and asked if I could chat with him in the office. So I went and he brought in another manager. They asked me a bunch of open-ended questions and just let me talk. They assured me that I was worried about nothing and that signing the agreement wouldn’t change anything about the way things were with my job. So I wrote “under duress” on the form, signed it and turned it in.

“The most effective way for this to happen [defang the left] is to make the left completely dependent on foundation money, i.e. the funding of rich people. Capitalists won’t pay you to get rid of capitalism, but they will pay you to make a spectacle that tricks you into thinking you are.”

But things did start to change at work. Even though the company policy was that no server could have more than four tables in their section, I was given a ten-table section on Sundays with no busser and no food runner. I had to do everything myself and was always overwhelmed. During my shifts, my managers would come to me and tell me that I was getting complaints online from customers. I would ask if I could see them and they would say no. Eventually they said I was getting too many complaints and that they had to let me go. I was gonna tell ROC about this.

A couple years prior, ROC had had a very high-profile campaign at an Italian restaurant in Michigan called Andiamo. The workers there were facing all sorts of issues, ranging from stolen wages to illegal firings. ROC held meetings with the workers at Andiamo and garnered support from various community groups. There were a series of actions at the restaurant, including a “tip-in” (where customers sit at the tables but don’t order anything; they stood up and sung protest songs to the managers) and large demonstrations outside of the restaurant with tons of people, floats, and dramatized conflicts between a ROC superhero and the owner of the company. Eventually, Andiamo and ROC settled the conflict and the workers were awarded a large sum of money, although since it happened outside of court, Andiamo can still tout that they were never found guilty of any wrongdoing.

When I went to ROC, I was expecting to be able to pull off these sorts of actions and force my bosses to give me and my coworkers similar concessions. At my membership orientation, they told me about the different perks of being a ROC member: free hospitality trainings, free legal counseling, and being able to participate in “workplace justice” campaigns (like the one at Andiamo).

From Low Road to “High Road”

I told ROC that my coworkers and I were fed up with the way our company was treating us, that I was wrongfully fired, and that we should have protests like the ones at Andiamo. I said, “The company handbook explicitly says they can’t give me a section this big, but they did it anyways! They can’t fire me for something that’s against their own policy!” ROC said that the company handbook is not legally binding and there was nothing they could do, but one of their “High Road” employers was coming in for a visit later in the week and I could talk to him about a job. I didn’t want a new job, I wanted ROC to march into the restaurant I had been fired from and demand justice! But they kept saying that there was nothing they could do. So I went to meet with their employer partner later in the week.

I ended up getting a job there and was able to get started right away. It was a pretty standard sports grill in the middle of downtown Detroit: steaks, chicken wings, draft beers and lots of boozy cocktails. I had worked in a similar workplace on the other side of town. I figured since this employer was taking the “high road to profitability” the workers would be making bank. When I talked to people about how much money they made, most were making minimum wage and the tips weren’t very good. I even heard stories of some of the bussers not receiving their full share of tips from the servers. How was this the “High Road”?

ROC had monthly meetings where members could come down to their building and hear updates about what was happening in the organization. At the next meeting, I met with the Workforce Development Director and asked her why my employer was considered “High Road.” She said it was because the boss had hired some formerly incarcerated workers who had gone through ROC’s hospitality training programs. There wasn’t a set of standards that they necessarily had to follow — they just had to be trying to do the “right thing.” I had figured that a restaurant that had an endorsement from a national organization like ROC would be a really awesome place to work, but this place had pretty low standards; in many cases, worse than most of the other places I had worked. The back of house [i.e. kitchen] was filthy, servers would have to pay when a table pulled a dine-and-dash, and the boss would always call the cooks “stupid motherfuckers.” But since the owner was willing to hire formerly incarcerated workers, it didn’t matter how staff were treated — even if there was wage theft. I tried getting some of my coworkers to come to ROC, but they weren’t interested. The job sucked, so when a friend of mine told me that the sushi restaurant she worked at was hiring, I left the sports bar and got a job with her.

During this time, I was becoming more active with ROC and I had also joined the IWW. Even though I had not witnessed it in person, the thought of restaurant workers coming together to leverage power was a new and exciting idea to me and I wanted to commit 100% of my energy to the cause. So when a ROC organizer contacted me and asked me to come to a national convening for restaurant workers, I said “YES!” immediately and booked a ticket.

I don’t really recall a whole lot from that first convening. It was kind of an overwhelming experience to be in a conference room that was packed full of workers and organizers. One thing I do remember though is that this was the first time I met Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of ROC. In many of the workshops and breakout groups, the staffers talked about Saru. A lot. And when Saru talked, she talked about herself. A lot. And her book. A lot.

At one point in the convening, all the ROC members were gathered into a room for a protest rehearsal. We learned about the Darden Restaurants conglomerate, and about how they were the largest donor to the National Restaurant Association, a large lobbying group that fights against minimum wage initiatives and other legislation that would benefit workers. Somehow we had a petition that had been signed by a large number of Darden workers demanding respect and so we were going to do a mass Jazzercize event in front of their doors as delegates from ROC delivered the petition to the store managers. I still haven’t figured out what Jazzercize had to do with anything, but it was high-energy and fun and I figured that the people who put all this together knew what they were doing so I just went with it. Nothing ever became of that petition, to my knowledge.

The next year’s convening went a little different. It still followed the same formula where a bunch of members were flown to the convening, and we had a bunch of breakout sessions where we talked about raising the minimum wage and then about the evils of Darden and the “other” NRA (National Restaurant Association). Saru would talk about her book, but then correct herself to say “our book” — even though her name is on the cover and she collects the royalties, the content of the book is comprised of anecdotes from workers, so they’re “our stories,” I guess. Once all that was finished, we were going to do another mass demonstration at a Darden location. I don’t think I ever met any Darden workers at a ROC convening, but we were assured that we represented their best interests and that they loved us for it.

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ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman speaking on wage theft in 2015 at the Women’s Economic Agenda Press Conference.

The Staff Union and “Reunification Plan”

The convening really did a 180 after lunch one day when the ROC staffers gathered all the members in the conference room and told us that they had locked Saru and the other directors out of the room. The organizers had some pressing news to tell the members: they had formed a union and they needed to let us know what the top brass of ROC had been up to. Up until this point, ROC locals each acted with a pretty large amount of autonomy. Each local director was in charge of their own fundraising and they could then use that money to address local issues, local workplaces, etc. Money came in through lawsuits against employers, donations from local unions and faith groups, small government grants, etc. Saru and her cohort were trying to push through what was called the “Reunification Plan,” which the organizers explained was a megalomaniacal scheme to take over ROC. The way ROC would be restructured would be that all fundraising would happen at the national level and then be dispersed to the local affiliates. As time went by, I learned that this meant that less money would come from the community and more and more money would come from big foundations.

Right around that time, our state director announced that she was leaving ROC. I was really bummed out because she was very personable with me and the other members and she seemed to really care about us. She and one of the organizers helped me and other members graduate from ROC’s Leadership Institute, where we learned about community organizing and how to bring worker and community issues to our local elected officials. Our graduation happened at a small gala event in which we were honored alongside some local “High Road” employers and politicians.

When our new director was introduced, she spoke very briefly about how she was just filling in as an interim director. Everyone’s jaw basically hit the floor when she said she didn’t know anything about restaurant workers or workers’ rights and that she wanted to be there for as short a time as possible. I now understand that non-profit administration acts like a revolving door: an executive director of one organization one day will be the executive director of another organization the next, depending on who pays more. This new director’s background was in consulting, so she hopped from place to place pretty often, and I think that was her initial plan with ROC. She ended up staying in that position for about five years.

As the directors were transitioning, I was asked to work on a contract basis as a “hospitality instructor.” My first contract was to teach “Front of House 101: Introduction to Fine Dining.” Students learned proper wine service, setting the table for fine dining, and other skills that would help them move up in the industry. Trainings were held at ROC’s social enterprise restaurant Colors. I really enjoyed teaching, but it was strange that our new director was asking me to remove the parts of the curriculum that covered minimum wage laws, health and safety protections, sexual harassment, and other worker rights. I argued that these were some of the most worthwhile parts of the training: nobody knows about these things and restaurant workers get screwed on a daily basis. She said that our funders didn’t want us politicizing workers. “We aren’t telling them who to vote for,” I said. “These are the laws and workers should know them.” She insisted that I not teach these parts of the curriculum because we could lose funding. I told her okay, but she was never actually in the building so I kept teaching them anyways.

My student reviews were good and I kept getting more contracts to teach. All sorts of students enrolled in our classes: low-wage workers who wanted better jobs, people who had never worked in restaurants at all, and sometimes folks who were just getting released from incarceration who needed help getting back on their feet. They had special programs for the formerly incarcerated called “re-entry programs” and one day, I received a piece of mail from the city’s workforce development department, inviting me to a re-entry conference. This part of the letter struck me really hard:

Employers who hire returning citizens have concluded that returning citizens make excellent employees because they are grateful for a second chance, are under the supervision of a probation officer who serves as a resource for the employer and assists with the employee retention and success, and are drug tested regularly. Tax credits and bonding programs provide additional incentives for employers to hire returning citizens.

I immediately thought back to the “High Road” restaurant I had worked at. I wondered if the workers who didn’t want to say anything about stolen wages were also “under the supervision of a probation officer who serves as a resource to the employer.” I felt sick and decided that I was going to go to this conference and I was going to speak up.

At the conference, I went to the breakfast table. There was a banquet server who was checking the fruit and replenishing the coffee. I struck up a conversation and was going to talk to her about ROC. After some small talk, I asked, “So is this a union job?” and she said “yes.” I wasn’t expecting that because I didn’t even know restaurant workers had unions. I said, “Oh cool. Which one?” “Local 24,” she answered. “Local 24 of what union?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. “They just take money out of my check and it goes to Local 24.” At that point they called us to our seats. Near the end of the event, there was a Q&A session, so I stood up and said, “I think it’s important that people have a second chance once they’ve been released from prison, but what are we doing to keep people out of jail in the first place?” Everyone just stared at me, many with smug grins on their faces. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just packed up my shit and left.

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Jayaraman with actress Amy Poehler at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards.

Three Prongs Like a Fork

Around this time, all of ROC’s staff were jumping ship. Even the chef at their restaurant, Colors. The organizer who I had worked with the closest invited me out to coffee and told me she was leaving too. I was really bummed out because I respected her a lot and admired her passion. She had shown me how to talk to people on the streets about our “Good Food, Good Jobs” campaign and had helped me prep for presentations in front of city council members and state representatives. I gained a lot of confidence from working with her. But what she told me next blew my mind: she said she thought that I should apply for the job she was leaving. She said, “I think you’d be really good at it and I’d love to see you in that position.” (Throughout all this time, my ROC involvement had been as an unpaid “member” and then as a contract instructor – I still had my job at the sushi restaurant.) I had never even imagined that I could be an organizer – I thought you needed some kind of degree or something. But I was gonna go for it and if I got hired, ROC was going to have actions like the ones at Andiamo on a daily basis. Not only did they call me in for an interview, but they gave me the job!

There were 3 “prongs” (like a fork) to ROC’s work when I first joined as a member: Workplace Justice (organizing workers around workplace issues), Research and Policy (advocating to change the laws in favor of workers), and High Road (hospitality trainings, ethical employers, and ROC’s restaurant, Colors). Each of these prongs had its own staff person. By the time I was hired as an organizer, there were no other staff people – I would have to do all three prongs by myself. But I was fresh and eager and knew I could do it!

I remembered that ROC staffers had formed a union a couple years back. I wanted to join, so I started asking how to sign up. It took a few weeks of me sending emails until someone finally got me in touch with a union rep. I was expecting some kind of pep talk about how “We’re all in this together!” and how great unions are, but instead I just got an email with a dues form attached, which said that failure to sign up could get me disciplined because our contract had a “closed shop” clause. I suddenly thought about the banquet server from Local 24. (I later found out that Local 24 belonged to UNITE HERE; our union was a part of the Communications Workers of America, Local 38010.)

Not too long after that, we had an all-staff convening in Washington, DC. Staff from all over the country would be there. It was gonna be my first one as a staffer and I was really pumped to meet everyone and get to work. On the first day, we were handed packets with a new organizational chart. Apparently a lot of jobs had been shuffled around and the organization was very top-heavy with management positions. There were actually more directors and supervisors than there were staff. The other organizers were chatting during lunch and we decided to have a meeting that night in someone’s hotel room. In the meantime, we had to sit through a bunch of presentations from consultants who had heavy ties to the Democratic Party. I remember one presenter brought up that we needed to change our image. He said that the image of an angry worker waving a sign at a protest isn’t going to appeal to the sympathy of voters in the same way that a small business “High Road” employer would. All of the organizers in the room looked at each other and rolled our eyes, almost in unison.

That night, we had our impromptu union meeting in a cramped hotel room. Our contract clearly stated that changes to our jobs had to be cleared by us and the union before they went into writing. But the new organizational chart clearly changed our positions without our consent, so we were gonna plan an action. We talked about having an action during the next day’s session, but apparently ROC had already filed some sort of grievance against the union for a similar action because it constituted a “work stoppage.” I remember saying, “So interrupting a consultant from the Democratic Party is a work stoppage?” and apparently it was. The next day, we asked if we could have a debrief session about the first day of the conference. They said yes, so all of the staffers immediately stood up and one by one, we each said, “My debrief is that our union contract was violated,” and then after the last person spoke, we told Saru that we wanted to discuss the issue. She said, “absolutely not” and that we had too much other business to cover. So we responded by saying that our union reps would be contacting her. The following week or so resulted in a few phone calls and emails, but nothing was resolved.

Image by Stephanie McMillan

How to Kill a Revolution: The Funding Trap

I was starting to see that the ROC I was working for was not the ROC I had joined as a worker. The driving purpose seemed to be to satisfy our funders, i.e. foundations. In order to understand that, we need to understand what a foundation is.

Wealthy people donate their money to “charitable” foundations to get tax breaks. Foundations then fund nonprofits like ROC to do “charitable” work. In order to keep the foundation money coming in, you have to abide by their terms; in other words, you have to act in a way that rich people will want to keep giving you money. Now I understood what the consultant was saying about not wanting the image of the agitated worker. The famous Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton has a famous quote, “You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution” and I think foundations understand this the best. In the 1960s, it was becoming difficult for the government to infiltrate left-wing groups and to jail or kill their leaders. There were just too many. So the next best thing would be for capital to just organize the left and completely defang it. The most effective way for this to happen is to make the left completely dependent on foundation money, i.e. the funding of rich people. Capitalists won’t pay you to get rid of capitalism, but they will pay you to make a spectacle that tricks you into thinking you are. A lot of groups buy into this without actually reflecting on what their actions are actually accomplishing.

Back in Michigan, a former organizer was brought in to give me a training about how she used to recruit workers. One of these methods was the one-on-one conversation. She helped me learn the Socratic method of asking questions to help workers understand the root of their issues. During a role-play exercise, I pretended to be a worker. She asked me why my wages were so low. I thought of my restaurant experience and said, “Because my boss is an asshole.” She didn’t seem to want to accept that answer. She explained to me that the “other” NRA lobbied our elected officials to keep wages down. I said, “Okay, but that doesn’t mean that my boss is being forced to not pay me more.” It was difficult for me to explain that I wasn’t trying to give her a hard time; I just didn’t think that the “other” NRA was a good target for action. During these sessions and also during conversations with ROC directors, it was explained to me that going after individual employers wasn’t feasible. There were too many of them and we could affect all of the restaurant workers at once if we changed policy. We were also told that unions represented only 1/10 of 1% of the restaurant workforce and that was a result of the shortcomings of the labor movement, and the inability of unions to form bargaining units in restaurants. They said employee turnover was just too high and workers were too vulnerable to speak up for themselves. Policy was the best way forward.

Months later, I was sitting in a coalition meeting with the director of ROC and other directors and staffers from some other local nonprofits. There was an icebreaker question, asking what we were excited about on that particular day. I responded that I had just heard about workers at a restaurant called Burgerville in Portland, who had just held the first ever successful union election at a fast food restaurant, and that it gave me hope that workers were finding ways to fight for what they deserve. My director immediately cut me off. She said, “Perhaps Jean-Carl is confused about who signs his paychecks as he’s over here talking about Burger Town or whatever, but I’m here for ROC and so I’m excited for ROC and One Fair Wage,” which was a minimum wage initiative that ROC was going to spearhead (more on that in a minute).

Why was this such an issue? Why couldn’t I be excited for a group that wasn’t ROC? Because of funders. When you’re a nonprofit, you are constantly competing for funding. So if you’re not always advertising yourself to them, you risk losing a grant. This came up again after I had brought ROC members to a “Fight for 15” event. My director asked, “Can I see the pictures you took?” I said, “I didn’t take any pictures. I didn’t know I was supposed to.” She replied, “Our funders want to see action. If you didn’t take any pictures, you might as well have just not gone.”

One day at work, one of the staffers from Colors restaurant asked me, “How come ROC fights for all these issues for restaurant workers, but they don’t give them to the workers at their own restaurant?” She told me that she had heard about ROC’s efforts for paid sick leave, but she had just gotten sick and didn’t get paid time off. So I told her that the rest of ROC’s staff had a union contract and that Colors should sign up. I discussed it with our union president and he told me to absolutely sign them up, so I uploaded our union website onto my computer and I brought everyone in, one by one, to enroll them in the union. At the end of the week, on Friday, we send the executive team a petition for voluntary recognition and said, “We look forward to working with you.” When we came back into work on Monday, Colors was closed indefinitely.

The following months consisted of endless emails and phone calls, trying to figure out what to do. ROC argued that there were budgetary issues which caused the closure. They said that because I wasn’t meeting my goals as a staffer our foundation funding had been cut. They tried to blame everything on me. After three months of endless emails, phone calls and meetings, we finally got Colors open again, but morale seemed really low and several people had found new jobs and wouldn’t return my calls. I had really thought that since ROC owned and ran Colors to be the flagship “High Road” restaurant, and because ROC was a self-proclaimed advocate for workers’ rights, that they would never union-bust their own people. I had to learn the hard way that a boss is a boss is a boss is a boss. Feeling defeated, the only thing to do was to get back to trying to do advocacy work.

Around this time, ROC was kicking off another project: Sanctuary Restaurants, based off of the Sanctuary City movement that was gaining traction. The director in charge of this program said that we were working on a curriculum for sexual harassment trainings for restaurants. I had voiced that it might work better to have gender diversity in trainers and since I was a man and the only staffer in Michigan, I wanted to recruit non-men workers to be trained as trainers. I put the word out on Facebook and got some responses. One was from a bartender at El Club in Detroit, and her coworker. I looked at our list and El Club was listed as a Sanctuary Restaurant, so I was pretty excited to meet them. I told them about what was going on and asked if they knew about Sanctuary Restaurants. They said no and that El Club was definitely not that. I asked why and they told me stories of wage theft, harassment, racism and that the owner had drugged and sexually assaulted a manager. I asked them if they wanted help and they said they’d like to keep talking with me but not to do anything drastic yet. At the next ROC directors and staff meeting, I asked how a restaurant becomes a Sanctuary Restaurant. It was pretty simple: the owner just signs up online. No questions asked. So then I asked, “Shouldn’t the workers decide if a restaurant is a Sanctuary Restaurant?” The tone of the call switched instantaneously. “Are you gonna go out and single-handedly ask every worker?!” they asked. I didn’t know how that was possible either, but it definitely sounded like we needed to pump the brakes a little bit on designating Sanctuary Restaurants. But we had grant deliverables, so that wasn’t an option.

Speaking of grant deliverables, we were getting funding for the One Fair Wage campaign (OFW). OFW is similar to the Fight for 15 (FF15) campaign, which was launched in 2012 by SEIU. In 2014, ROC and other organizations in Michigan launched a petition to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 — much lower than $15, however it included tipped workers, who are often left out of minimum wage increases. Michigan laws can be changed through ballot initiatives, which come about through circulating a petition and getting a certain number of people to sign it. ROC decided to go this route for OFW, and needed about 400,000 signatures before the $10.10 minimum wage could be voted on by the general public in the November election. Although the campaign collected enough signatures, the Michigan legislature pulled a parliamentary move and the initiative was not put on the ballot. We were told by ROC administrators that there would be lawsuits and the next step we were presented with was to elect the “right people” to office (Democrats) who would give workers the raises they deserved. No lawsuits happened and $10.10 was not achieved (the legislature got away with killing the ballot initiative by passing a much smaller minimum wage increase instead).

In 2018, ROC decided to launch another One Fair Wage petition, this time for a whopping $12/hr. I asked several times what would happen if the legislature pulled a similar move to what happened in 2014. I was told over and over that the last episode was a fluke and wouldn’t happen again. Next thing I knew, consultants were being brought in from out of state and paid petition-gatherers were being brought in to collect signatures from registered voters. I didn’t see any involvement from restaurant workers at all. The campaign was being championed by Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin, so all of our effort was dedicated to promoting their speaking events and fancy dinners. Some of the fundraisers cost hundreds of dollars per ticket — not a price that your average restaurant worker could afford. So this meant that the faces of the campaign were not restaurant workers, the people funding the campaign were not restaurant workers and the boots on the ground were not restaurant workers. For a publicity video, they even dressed up Jane Fonda as a restaurant worker. But they said that this is what we have to do to get the issue on the ballot. In the end, they paid enough people to collect enough signatures, but the legislature overturned the ballot again, and the non-profits put out a message that a Blue Wave was gonna save us. Still waiting on that to happen. I was told the 2018 OFW campaign cost about $5 million dollars at the end of the day.

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Workers at Portland based Burgerville pose for a picture welcoming another store announcing go public with their union affiliation. Image: Burgerville Workers Union

Back to Work: Building Alternatives

Around the same time as Burgerville, another IWW worker-led campaign had kicked off in the food service industry at a restaurant called Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York City. This campaign was sparking a lot of conversation because it wasn’t trying to negotiate a contract or get government recognition for the union — workers were directly confronting their managers over thing like pay and safety and winning. Since joining the IWW, I had been trained as an Organizer Trainer and had been teaching the training in different cities around the US and Canada. I was becoming more and more familiar with the curriculum of training workers to talk to each other and take action on grievances, and was seeing unions pop up at restaurants, despite the fact that ROC had said that unions were an outdated model of worker power, especially for restaurant workers. After a lot of thought and sorting out some heavy Stockholm Syndrome, I visited the sushi restaurant I had worked at before taking the organizer job and asked if they could put me back on the schedule. They said yes, so I submitted my two-week notice to ROC.

Not much had changed at the restaurant, but at least I didn’t feel like a fraud working there. Not too much later, a friend of mine who had been to an IWW training told me she was looking for a job. I said, “You should sign up for the IWW and we should organize this place.” She got hired and then signed a Red Card.

The company schedules at least one cleaning day per year, in which servers come in on their day off and scrub walls, clean under tables, and do other deep-cleaning duties that are too intensive to get done during a regular shift. And we would only get paid our server wage of just over $3 per hour. So we decided that we were going to fix this. We talked to some of the workers at Ellen’s Stardust Diner about how they have taken on the boss and won. Then we made a plan. When he was least expecting it, we cornered the owner at the bar and told him that we were not going to work these cleaning days for any less than $10 per hour. At first he resisted, but we had prepared for that and we were able to shut him down every time he tried to respond. He caved and on the cleaning day everyone got $10 per hour in cash. After that, we were able to show coworkers that direct action is how we get things done. We signed up more workers with Red Cards and we had more wins at work, including raises. One time we won back stolen wages for the cook, and the owner apologized and cried.

I was recently talking to some friends about Rube Goldberg machines. For a while, I had described the non-profit model as a Rube Goldberg machine for social justice, but that’s not fair to Rube Goldberg machines — at least they produce a final product. Non-profits are more of a hamster wheel: always in motion, yet always stagnant and extremely exhausting for the subjects caught inside. Power doesn’t come from glossy brochures, paid professionals or celebrities. Power comes from solidarity, and solidarity is us acting together on the job.

Jean-Carl Elliott currently works and organizes in the food service industry and is a member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra.

This interview was originally published by Organizing Work blog which provides a platform for shop floor organizing struggles as well as reporting and commentary on the labor movement.

This interview was originally published by Organizing Work blog which provides a platform for shop floor organizing struggles as well as reporting and commentary on the labor movement.

For more in depth discussion on the labor movement we recommend “The State of Labor: Beyond Unions, But Not Without Them” by the Labor Sector Committee of Black Rose/Rosa Negra. For more readings on inspiring and successful strikes, we recommend: