Airing Dirty Linens

A Win for Workers Who Put the Finery in Fine Dining

Throughout the spring and summer of 2002, UNITE! submitted a string of complaints to the NLRB. In August, they filed a class-action suit against LOE for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New York Minimum Wage Act. The law requires that employers pay a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, and overtime for work in excess of 40 hours a week and 10 hours a day. The suit, which is still pending, demands lost minimum wages and overtime pay illegally denied. In October, the NLRB rendered a strong decision requiring, among other things, that LOE cease its anti-union activity and its support for Local 22, allow workers to join the union of their choice, provide the ASAI Joint Board with names and addresses of employees, and reinstate the two fired workers with back pay. All parties signed the agreement, but as of early January LOE had yet to comply with a single stipulation.

In the face of LOE's intransigence, UNITE!, with support from NYJWJ, decided to directly approach the restaurants, which turned out to be some of the finest culinary establishments in the city. Besides Alain Ducasse, La Caravelle, and the "21" Club, LOE also contracted with Picholine and Artisanal, both owned by Terrance Brennan. They organized delegations of community and religious leaders to ask restaurants to break their contracts with LOE. Support came from several elected officials, notably Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, state senators Liz Krueger and Tom Duane, councilmembers Christine Quinn and Margarita Lopez, and Congressman Jose E. Serrano.

After letters and personal appeals to restaurateurs were ignored, they decided to take direct action. Thomas Wheatley of NYJWJ led a group into Artisanal, occupied a table as if they were customers, and proceeded to inform diners of the situation. "People have no idea," observed Chambers before the settlement, "that when they are eating in these extremely fancy restaurants, the owners and managers have contracted with what we think is the worst sweatshop linen supplier in the whole metro area."

Members of UNITE! and NY Jobs With Justice leafleting outside the "21" Club
photo: Cary Conover
Members of UNITE! and NY Jobs With Justice leafleting outside the "21" Club

A few people were moved to listen, but none more than Artisanal's new general manager, Jeff Bendavid. He had just started the job when he was confronted with letters and faxes from community leaders, leafleteers outside the restaurant, and then a group of activists telling customers that the napkins they used to wipe their mouths were from a sweatshop. The protests not only interfered with business, they weighed on his conscience. After meeting Castelan, he recalled, "It just rang a sad note. I'm not necessarily pro-union, but I am for workers getting their rights. Business is business, but when you lose your heart and lose sight of all the other stuff that goes on, it doesn't sit right."

Bendavid opened talks with UNITE! and NYJWJ and tried to persuade the other restaurants to break their LOE contracts. "I thought, if we all get together and say, 'Enough is enough,' that someone at Linens of Europe is going to have to listen to us." On December 17, after several weeks of negotiations, Artisanal and Picholine broke their contract by invoking language in the force majeure clause, which allows either party to avoid liability in the case of unusual events: "acts of God," fire, flood . . . and "labor disputes." They argued that the labor dispute at LOE hurt their business because it created public criticism and demonstrations directed at the restaurants.

And they were right. The restaurants could not afford the bad publicity, especially from respected voices in the political and religious community. Nor could LOE afford to lose business or hurt its excellent reputation for providing high-quality products and outstanding service, especially with the crème de la crème venues.

Of course, UNITE! and NYJWJ are pleased with the settlement, but they caution it won't be over until every LOE worker is protected by the union and covered under the master contract. As Wilfredo Larancuent, manager of the ASAI Joint Board put it, "This is one step in a long, long journey, but it's a beginning." Meanwhile, the customers at Alain Ducasse can now wipe the corners of their mouths in good conscience.

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