Fork Off

In addition to food fights between the ROC-NY activists and restaurants, some of the activists are throwing rocks at each other

Shelly Fireman didn't open his next restaurant, Trattoria Dell'Arte, which serves Carnegie Hall concertgoers and tourists, until nearly 15 years later. In the mid-1990s, the company opened the Brooklyn Diner and Redeye Grill, and in 2000, Shelly's New York, followed by Bond 45 in 2005. Altogether, Fireman Group restaurants employ more than 1,200 people.

Meanwhile, John Fireman wanted to be a filmmaker. But when his father approached him a couple of years ago about joining the business full time, he didn't hesitate. "It really wasn't more complicated than my father asking me to," he says. "I decided that the most logical expression of that responsibility would be to work towards the point at which I could operate the company on a daily basis."

For now, though, "the ROC stuff has dominated a lot of my learning experience," he says. Fireman spends much of his time as the restaurant chain's spokesman to the media and in courtrooms. It's eye-opening, but Fireman claims that neither he nor his father was personally offended when ROC members displayed a giant puppet of Shelly Fireman's head with dollar signs for eyes.

John Fireman in his West Village apartment
photo: Jake Prince
John Fireman in his West Village apartment

"I honestly found it so silly that it kind of rolled off my back," says John Fireman. "I stopped listening sometime around when they started accusing my Jewish father of being an anti-Semite."

While John Fireman was learning the family business, ROC was expanding its mission, working to organize restaurant workers and fight for better working conditions. ROC says it wants to bring about a major change in the city's restaurant industry, which employs more than 150,000 workers. Its strategy includes going after high-profile targets such as Smith & Wollensky and Daniel, staging loud public protests (sometimes called "prayer vigils" to circumvent certain labor laws), threatening lawsuits, and winning out-of-court settlements for the workers.

Typically, the critics of ROC's high- profile protests at—and even inside—high-profile restaurants call them "strong-arm tactics." To which Jayaraman replies: "We're not doing anything illegal. I don't really care what people call it. It notifies the people to what's going on in the restaurant."

There are currently two class-action lawsuits against the Fireman restaurants, seeking more than $10 million. ROC itself does not sue—it is not a union and has no formal standing—but it's the catalyst in organizing restaurant workers, who in turn become members of ROC and donate, if they choose, a part of their settlement to the organization.

ROC describes itself as a workers' advocacy group. The flyers that its members distribute carry a disclaimer that "ROC-NY is not a labor organization and does not seek to represent the workers or be recognized as a collective bargaining agent of the workers." But bargaining and union-style brinkmanship are exactly what it does.

"It's a safe bet that most restaurateurs take great comfort in the fact that just 4 percent of the industry is unionized," Ellen Koteff wrote in the June 2006 trade paper Nation's Restaurant News. "It is precisely that low level of participation, however, that has labor leaders viewing the restaurant industry as ripe for organization and urging their unions to become more aggressive in future recruiting tactics."

Saru Jayaraman, now 31, was raised in California by immigrant parents from southern India and graduated from Yale Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Hard-working, she runs ROC meetings every Monday and Wednesday in the group's office in the UNITE HERE building on Seventh Avenue, where members are offered classes in bartending, public speaking, interviewing skills, and ESL. UNITE HERE, a union representing garment workers and hotel and restaurant employees, donated money toward ROC's start-up.

Jayaraman says she wants New York City restaurants to pay their employees what she calls a living wage—"wages that allow workers to feed their families." According to the New York State Department of Labor, "food service workers" can be paid as little as $4.60 per hour "because their total compensation includes expected tips." If Jayaraman succeeds in changing this standard—and she has at Colors—it could shake up the city's mammoth restaurant industry.

"Raising the bar in an industry that relies on cheap labor also translates into a higher cost of business, something Ms. Jayaraman is learning firsthand," Lisa Fickenscher wrote in Crain's New York Business in 2006. "Her organization is an investor in Colors, a restaurant that opened earlier this year. The restaurant pays wages above the industry average but is now struggling."

Whether or not that's true, ROC faces internal struggles as its fifth anniversary approaches. Eight former members have taken the nonprofit to court, alleging that ROC forced them out after they refused to sign what they deemed unfair contracts.

Behzad Pasdar became a member of ROC after the restaurant he'd been bartending in for almost eight years closed down after 9/11. "I knew the insecurity of working in a restaurant," he says over a beer at a Brooklyn restaurant. "It's a sink-or-swim type of thing." Pasdar, originally from Iran and now living in Jersey City with his wife and their infant son, says he wanted to be part of ROC's mission of starting a restaurant cooperative and a model for restaurant-worker centers.

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