Look Who Crossed a Picket Line


All 250 employees at the Rainbow Room lost their jobs two days before Christmas. . . . Many of us worked there 10 years or more. . . . It is our legal right to get our message out to the public. That’s why we are here tonight. . . .

Did you know that the Ciprianis don’t let women work in their dining rooms? . . . Did you know that the service charge that appears on the check for this evening’s event will not be distributed to the [nonunion] workers who are serving the event?

The Ciprianis call their banquet waiters “independent contractors. This allows the Ciprianis to avoid paying their share of their employees’ Social Security taxes and other obligations such as disability, [health benefits], and workers’ compensation insurance.

— from a leaflet handed out on a picket line by the Local 6 Hotel, Restaurant, and Club Employees Union, AFL-CIO, outside PEN American Center’s awards gala at Cipriani’s 42nd Street catering hall, May 12

PEN American Center, a writers’ organization, does extraordinarily valuable work. It helps free imprisoned writers in repressive countries all over the world and is a vital force in battling censorship in this country. And PEN sends writers into prisons and conducts literacy programs.

I know some of its crucial achievements firsthand because, for a long time, I was on its Freedom-to-Write Committee.

PEN’s annual black-tie awards gala dinner provides an important part of its annual budget and therefore attracts free-speech celebrities in and out of the literary world along with a good many of its major donors.

Nonetheless, because of Local 6’s picket line on May 12 at a Cipriani catering hall across the street from Grand Central Station, a number of people who support PEN’s work refused to attend that gala.

Each year, Paul Newman bankrolls a large PEN money award to a free-speech paladin who has risked a lot, even a job, to oppose censorship. But he declined, on principle, to attend the gala. Among others honoring the picket line were Gay Talese, Victor Gotbaum, Spalding Gray, Thomas Cahill— and George Stephanopoulos, who went inside briefly to tell his book publisher what he was protesting, and then came back out again.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, had a table in her name but did not attend; Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation, also declined to cross the line.

Afterward, as reported in the New York Post (May 18), Paul Newman and his associate, A. E. Hotchner, insisted that the Newman’s Own/George Award— which gives $250,000 to the most philanthropic company in America— not take place at another Cipriani venue.

However, a good many guests, some of them surprising to me, walked right past the picketers and into the banquet hall owned by these employers, who operate in the imperious tradition of the preunion bosses of the 19th century and much of this century.

For a comprehensive news account of the fiercely antiunion Ciprianis, I recommend “A Restaurant Empire Under Siege” by Charles V. Bagli (New York Times, May 16) and “Now Invading Manhattan, Father and Son Cipriani Start Rainbow Room War” (by Frank DiGiacomo and Devin Leonard, New York Observer, January 25).

Keep that New York Observer publication date in mind when you consider PEN’s disingenuous official statement— in this column next week— to “explain” why it did not honor Local 6’s picket line.

Among those who went past the picketers to enjoy the gala was actor Ron Silver, who is also president of Actor’s Equity and a cofounder of the Creative Coalition. That night, Silver scored a hat trick. He not only crossed Local 6’s picket line, but he did so as the president of another union and as a member of the Screen Actors Guild. There must be some kind of an award for that in the name of Henry Ford, a nonpareil union-basher.

Also ignoring the Local 6 members fired by the Ciprianis were— as reported in the May 14 Daily News— Steve Kroft, Dan Rather, Bill Buford, Oliver Stone, David Remnick (editor of The New Yorker), Ken Auletta, E. L. Doctorow, Ben Bradlee, Alan King, Arthur Miller, and Judy Blume.

I did not expect to see the last two names. Judy Blume is one of the most forthright opponents of censorship in libraries and classrooms, and Arthur Miller has long been a free-speech activist on many fronts.

In that Daily News piece, Arthur Miller said: “It was more important for me to help PEN than worry about crossing a line. PEN helps writers over five continents. They have one fund-raising event each year, and this is it.”

But why didn’t PEN go somewhere else? As The New York Times reported (May 16), “General Motors, George magazine, HBO, and others” have canceled “lucrative events at the Rainbow Room and Cipriani 42nd Street” rather than cross the line.

But, says PEN, it was given “less than 48 hours’ notice” that those inconvenient picketers would be standing in front of Cipriani 42nd Street on the night of the PEN gala.

This is a Clintonian spin, as I’ll show next week.

On Local 6 picket lines, Bismark Mingle, who worked at the Rainbow Room for 10 years, holds up a sign that says: “It is supposed to be against the law to fire someone for being a union member. And that’s exactly why Cipriani fired me. Shame on him.”

PEN forgot, or did not know, that New York is still a union town.