He says they’re conspirators. They say he’s a thief. A restaurant owner and a food-service labor group are tangled in a web of legal battles over how far a group of disgruntled workers should be able to go to complain about working conditions.
Having filed a defamation lawsuit in 2014, Manuel Antonio Liberato, the owner of Liberato Restaurant, is bringing a RICO case against prominent labor organization the Laundry Workers Center for racketeering, extortion, and harassment.
Meanwhile, the Center has filed a suit of its own against Liberato. The group has also filed five complaints with the National Labor Relations Board for retaliation against workers who organized for workplace reforms. Liberato’s attorneys call the complaints “baseless.”
The drama began on April 19, 2014, when activists with the organization, along with several current and former Liberato employees, launched a months-long campaign against the restaurant. The group formed a “motley crew of musicians” banging drums and blowing horns in an attempt to “terrorize, harass, and coerce plaintiffs,” the complaint states.
The musicians, calling themselves the “Rude Mechanical Orchestra,” filed into Liberato’s restaurant, refused to leave, made a toast to the employees, and made “deafening, off-key, and disruptive noise” with their clarinets and trombone.
In June 2014, the Laundry Workers Center filed a class-action lawsuit against Liberato on behalf of three current and thirteen former workers. The suit demanded repayment of withheld tips, unpaid overtime, and restitution for other grievances. The group also accuses managers of sexually harassing their colleagues, firing workers who organized to demand their rights, and paying less than minimum wage.
According to Liberato’s complaint, after the class-action suit was filed, protesters plastered the restaurant’s three managers’ neighborhoods with accusations of sexual harassment and wage theft. One of the managers stepped outside of her building with her eight-year-old son and, “to her terror and astonishment, saw a poster with her picture on it outside her place of residence,” the suit states.
Liberato also accuses protesters of shouting “maricón,” a Spanish anti-gay slur, outside the restaurant, as well as frightening customers by picketing on the restaurant’s private property. But Mahoma Garfias, one of the group’s co-directors, says the LWC is a pro-LGBTQ group and would not have used a slur like that during a protest. “We don’t use those words,” he says. “That would hurt the movement.” But, he adds, if “people in the community walk by or join, we can’t control what they say.”
The restaurant also alleges that the LWC “misleads immigrant workers into believing that if they pay a fee to the group, the organization will work to get them better wages,” according to a report on the legal website Law360.
Garfias, who is a salaried staff member of the organization and a defendant listed on the case, says the LWC is funded by monthly membership dues, but he insisted that those are optional, and that organizers have never pressured people to fund the group. “We have many members who don’t pay dues,” he said. “It’s a donation.”
RICO cases against workers’-rights groups are hardly new, although they’re usually directed at more corporate-scale unions. According to James Brudney at Fordham School of Law, the cases flourished in the 1980s after the success of many unions’ large-scale campaigns against employers.
“In general, employers have used RICO to try and intimidate workers and worker organizations, and if they survive a motion to dismiss they can cause reputational damage at least,” he says in an email to the Voice. Because of the unsavory, organized-crime vibe associated with the lawsuits, he explains in an article for the Southern California Law Review, they don’t just carry the threat of “treble damages [and] attorneys’ fees” — they can also lead to “unions being labeled mobsters.”
In an email to the Voice, Liberato’s lawyer Martin Restituyo says they are not seeking to silence the employees who are complaining — but he does want to put a stop to tactics that go further than constitutional rights to free speech. “I am entitled to have a negative opinion of the president,” he says. “I am not allowed to break into his house to tell him about it.”