Fork Off

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

"I was there to work," he says. "I was very serious about the whole mission." Over the three years that Pasdar was an unpaid member, his work for ROC—which included catering jobs for fundraisers and speaking at City Hall—was deemed "sweat equity," which would be paid back in partial ownership of what would become the restaurant Colors. As part of Colors' ownership plan, the restaurant stock would originally be owned 50 per cent by ROC-NY and 50 percent by an Italian restaurant co-op.

In October 2004, Jayaraman presented a contact to ROC members that included mandatory protest attendance, mandatory testifying in favor of worker legislation, and mandatory support of workers in any dispute with employers. "Saru comes in with the contract, puts it down on the table, and says, 'You have to sign,' " Pasdar recalls. He says he asked if the members could take the contract home to look over or show it to a lawyer. "'If you don't sign this, you will never be part of the co-op,'" Pasdar recalls Jayaraman saying. "I remember it perfectly."

When one member refused to sign, he was voted out after what Pasdar describes as "a lot of pressure." Pasdar found a lawyer to review the contract and held his own meeting with other members at the Tribeca Bakery. Jayaraman and a group of her supporters showed up and stood outside the eatery while the meeting was taking place, he says.

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

The internal dispute boiled over in March 2005, according to events laid out in the dissidents' lawsuit against ROC and Jayaraman. The next month, a mediator was brought in—the dissidents say ROC chose the person—and there was a showdown in a room where some of ROC's Cooperative Committee members were meeting. "The dissenters attempted to enter the meeting, led by plaintiff Pasdar," the suit says. "When they entered the room over the mediator's protest and efforts to push the door closed, she adjourned the meeting."

At a May 2005 ROC board meeting, "several persons . . . made statements critical of Pasdar, describing him as 'belligerent' and stating that Pasdar 'represented a real threat to the success of this venture,' " the suit says. Pasdar was then expelled from ROC-NY.

In late 2005, ROC-NY opened Colors. According to the suit, "none of the plaintiffs, and no more than 10 to 12 of the ROC-NY Co-op Committee members who had contributed the required sweat equity, were included as owners and were present as part of the restaurant's opening day workforce."

After the hundreds of hours dedicated to ROC, Pasdar never earned a dollar. "If we're going to accept this model as a co-op, then the whole labor movement will be screwed," he says. "This ain't a co-op. This shit's a dictatorship."

Jayaraman has heard worse—a Post op- ed column last February sneeringly dubbed her a "Communist." She seems to be taking the lawsuit against ROC with a grain of salt, but there is no doubt that she has a broader agenda. It's something she has always freely acknowledged. Jayaraman says that, in a way, it's good that workers have learned to stand up and fight for what they believe in, but adds that Pasdar and others thought 100 percent of Colors' profits should have gone to them alone, instead of having a portion set aside to help other workers open other cooperative restaurants.

"It's about a movement," Jayaraman says. "It's about workers, not a group of members getting rich."

Pasdar, who worked a full-time job while a ROC member, says that he too wanted to see other co-op restaurants throughout the boroughs, but that he also wanted some security for the work put into opening and running Colors. "What's the point if the people who work at this restaurant can't pay for schools for their kids?" he says. "This is not the American dream."

Neither is the typical restaurant job in New York City. In a 2005 ROC report, "Behind the Kitchen Door," the group claimed that more than 60 percent of all New York City restaurant workers reported not receiving proper overtime wages, 25 percent reported experiencing tip irregularities, 30 percent reported experiencing racial discrimination, and 13 percent reported not receiving the minimum wage.

Jennifer Mascia first started working at the Redeye Grill in September 2004. A part-time journalism student at Columbia University at the time, Mascia had originally called ROC in search of a story. She didn't find one, but as an afterthought she asked Jayaraman about the tip-out policy in the restaurant where she'd been serving sushi rolls and steak to a high-end clientele. The Redeye Grill had a tip pool, in which the largest percentage of tips went to the servers or bartenders, with busboys and food runners receiving a smaller percentage. Fireman restaurants had created a position they called the "zone maître d'," and those workers took away 4 percent from the tip pool in addition to receiving a higher wage than the waitstaff. Some servers considered the zone maître d's to be management and resented their taking money out of the tip pool. Legally, managers cannot be part of a tip pool because they are the servers' bosses—they have the power to hire and fire and discipline. (The state Department of Labor has in fact found that the zone maître d's did not act as managers and were entitled to a share of the tip pool, but that issue is likely to be fought in court cases.)

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