10 years of rancid restaurant-bashing

Original Article:

  • Author: Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: September 2012

  • Newspaper: The New York Post

  • Topics: Health Care

Next week, one of New York’s most pernicious activist groups — the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, aka ROC — celebrates its 10th anniversary with a posh $400-a-plate dinner.

Like most groups that reach the 10-year milestone, ROC has grown a lot. Once content to stage rag-tag protests outside the city’s finest restaurants, it now promotes its work with the help of a savvy media team and sports an impressive list of big-dollar foundation donors.

But the radical ideology and loose commitment to the truth that defined ROC from the start remain firmly in place.

The good vibes didn’t last long. When one Windows owner opened a new Times Square eatery in mid-2002, ROC chafed that it wasn’t staffed exclusively with workers from the old restaurant. Of course, it wasn’t that simple: Some Windows ex-employees who applied weren’t qualified; still others were offered a job and passed. No matter: ROC ignored the facts and staged a series of protests.ROC was founded in the wake of 9/11, ostensibly to help employees of the Windows on the World restaurant. The vast majority of the restaurant’s surviving employees were unionized, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union collected over $3 million in donations to support an employee-assistance plan that ROC helped create.

This was the first hint that ROC wasn’t a traditional charitable organization, but far from the last.
By late 2003, ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman had explicitly stated that her group’s goal was to organize the “non-union 90 percent of New York City’s restaurant workforce.” ROC aimed at creating a “labor-friendly climate” to pave the way for union organizing drives.

Top New York chefs like Daniel Boulud learned this lesson the hard way. ROC launched a series of racially-tinged protests outside his restaurant — complete with a giant blow-up cockroach — in conjunction with a lawsuit accusing the chef of racist hiring practices.

This was hardly a pro-employee event: As The New York Times reported at the time, Boulud’s employees actually held their own protests against ROC’s provocateurs.

Boulud settled the lawsuit in 2007 without admitting guilt, paying ROC $80,000 to go away. ROC has since exported this model across the country to nine new chapters: Ignore its demands and face protests and lawsuits; take the “high road” and acquiesce, and you’ll be left alone.

Support from New York-based charities like the Ford Foundation has also enabled ROC to move beyond its roots in union-style organizing and onto the highbrow world of advocacy research — albeit without any greater interest in the truth. ROC does “surveys” of restaurant employees within its network of contacts and uses the responses to make exaggerated claims.
For example, it recently “showed” that 90 percent of Miami’s restaurant employees don’t get paid sick days — but its “evidence” was a non-random survey of one-quarter of 1 percent of the region’s restaurant staff.

Even where ROC relies on government data, it can’t get the facts right. For instance, a report this year trumpets evidence that the restaurant industry practices “discrimination by design.” The proof? Census Bureau data showing that only one in five restaurants’ head chefs is a woman.ROC assumes this is the result of industry discrimination — but fails to note that 57 percent of first-line supervisors in the restaurant industry are women.

The disregard for factual accuracy is not surprising. ROC, at its heart, is a radical, labor-aligned advocacy group, and the motive behind its protests and research products is purely ideological.
It goes far beyond the standard left/right distinctions: ROC’s Jayaraman has spoken out against capitalism, globalization — even the “Israeli occupation.”

In recent years ROC has taken a more p.r.-friendly tack — even releasing a Zagat-style guide that rates restaurants on arbitrary measures of employee rights. But no matter how many years pass, or how many foundation checks are cut, the Restaurant Opportunities Center will remain a radical outfit whose tactics neither help restaurants nor provide opportunities for their employees.