Airing Dirty Linens

A Win for Workers Who Put the Finery in Fine Dining

On New Year's Eve, while diners at Manhattan's most expensive restaurant, Alain Ducasse in the Essex House, celebrated over supper in tuxedos and gowns accompanied by a string duet, about a dozen members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!) and NY Jobs With Justice (NYJWJ) spent their evening leafleting this and other restaurants for doing business with one of the city's worst sweatshops.

Along Central Park South, this small gathering of predominantly Latino and black union members informed passersby and potential diners that those beautiful, imported white tablecloths and napkins with which one enjoyed the exquisite $280 prix fixe meal (caviar, grated white truffle, artisanal farfalle, and duck foie gras) were laundered by folks who have been working 11-hour days without overtime, earning less than $4 an hour, and denied the right to organize. There were no signs or bullhorns, speeches or confrontations with police.

On one side the handbills wished everyone "a prosperous and happy New Year." On the other, it read, "Alain Ducasse isn't providing a Happy New Year for the workers who clean their fancy table linens!" And surprisingly, many of the sober folks actually read the flyers, and a few stopped with questions.

The prime target of these protests was Linens of Europe (LOE), a Houston-based linen and restaurant supply company that provides tablecloths and napkins and chefs' uniforms for Alain Ducasse and other high-end gourmet restaurants, including the "21" Club and La Caravelle. LOE's shop, located in the South Bronx, was cited by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in October for violating state and federal minimum-wage laws and for denying workers the right to organize. The management illegally fired at least two employees for merely signing a union card.

The New Year's Eve action proved to be the final blow in UNITE!'s yearlong campaign against the company. Last Friday, LOE agreed to implement the terms of the NLRB decision, which required, among other things, that they allow UNITE! to organize without interference, reinstate with back pay the workers who were fired, and comply with minimum-wage laws. The agreement marks a tremendous victory not only for UNITE! and NYJWJ, but for the labor movement as a whole. In this age of global capital, characterized by runaway shops and the erosion of workers' rights and protections under the Bush administration, organizing sweated immigrant labor has become increasingly difficult. The Linens of Europe campaign proves that the lowest-paid and most exploited workers can win when they reach out to the community at large. It is a powerful example of what can happen when labor, community and political leaders, and at least one progressive industry leader come together and decide that humane working conditions and freedom to join a union ought to be a basic right for all workers.

Why target the restaurants? "Linens of Europe really left no other alternative," said Maura Keaney, staff member of the Amalgamated Service & Allied Industries (ASAI) Joint Board of UNITE! "We tried since February to talk to them, to negotiate with them to represent their workers. And when the NLRB issued a settlement indicating what they need to do to fix the situation, they refused to implement any of the remedies the NLRB called for."

Most of the city's industrial laundry shops are located in the South Bronx, where, prior to LOE's arrival, UNITE! had completed a successful organizing drive in November 2000, securing a master contract for some 4000 industrial laundry workers at 34 companies in the New York metropolitan area. The contract set a wage floor of $7.50 an hour, provided medical benefits with no premium, dental coverage, vacation, and significantly improved safety conditions.

LOE opened shop paying their employees barely half of what the lowest-paid union members made, and at least $1.15 less than the minimum wage required by state law. Rocio Castelan, who was fired for signing a union card, worked weekdays, 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Every two weeks she received $530 in cash despite the fact that she had been compelled to sign a sheet indicating that she received $600. She was told the company deducted $10 as a service charge for "cashing the check," but she had no idea where the remaining $60 went. While working for LOE, she never saw a company check payable to her.

Castelan, a young mother with several years of garment industry experience, never expected to be fired for joining a union. She liked her job, but signed the union card, "because we could have better wages, better hours, and medical benefits." However, Erminio "Sonny" Iannaccone, LOE's vice president of operations, fired Castelan and another worker for signing the cards. He then met with employees April 9 and threatened to fire anyone who joined UNITE! He informed them they were already in a union—the United Independent Union Local 22, National Federation of Independent Unions.

Iannaccone (who did not return Voice phone calls) had brought in the mysterious Local 22 and its president, William Guarino, in February to undercut UNITE!'s organizing drive.

"They have an address which has no office and a phone number that no human being has ever answered," said Megan Chambers, staff director for the ASAI Joint Board. "William Guarino is a real person, but he doesn't speak Spanish, and yet we're supposed to believe that he got these workers to sign union cards." Indeed, in April, Local 22's office was allegedly located at 10 Van Siclen Street, Brooklyn, but that is the address of McKenna's Construction Company. And no one ever answered many calls to the union phone number. Besides, the NLRB settlement did not recognize Local 22 as a legitimate representative of the workers and demanded that LOE stop employing its members to conduct anti-UNITE! activity.

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."

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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