Latest Solidarity Issue

ROC serves up rights for restaurant workers

Hungry for justice

Jen Trombley, above, is a ROC
supporter. “I’m very pro-union.
Workers need a voice in the workplace.
… Unions are a way for workers to be heard,” she said.

Minsu Longiaru, (below, in white ski cap),
who coordinates ROC-Michigan, leads ralliers, including Naomi Debebe-Bogale, far left, and Magda Robles, center.

Naomi Debebe-Bogale can attest to the injustice many restaurant workers face.

She had worked in the industry for nearly a decade before going to work for Andiamo’s of Dearborn, just outside of Detroit. She’s experienced all sides of the restaurant business – the good, the bad and the ugly – but her time at Andiamo’s was by far the worst.

Hired as a server at $2.65 an hour, Debebe-Bogale was consistently given the worst section of the restaurant where she often had just two tables to wait on in a five-hour shift.

With such a low wage and barely any tips, she struggled to pay her bills. Yet some co-workers got better sections, worked private parties and even bragged about bringing home $1,000 a week in tips.

When she complained to management, they harassed her even more.

* * *

The restaurant industry employs 12.7 million Americans in about 945,000 locations across the United States. Debebe-Bogale’s treatment is more common than not.

Fortunately, the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United (ROC-United) has made it their business to change things by arming restaurant workers with training and education about their workplace rights.

“This is a high-growth industry and a powerful indicator of how people are doing economically in this country,” said Minsu Longiaru, coordinator for the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan (ROC-Michigan). “It’s one of the employers expected to grow faster than any other industry, but they provide some of the lowest-paying jobs with the least benefits.”

“We must fight for better conditions in this industry,” she added.

The group’s first branch, ROC-New York, was founded in 2002 after the 9/11 tragedy that killed 73 workers from the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center. Another 300 were left without jobs.

By 2007, ROC expanded to major cities such as Miami, New Orleans and Chicago, along with the states of Maine and Michigan, and comprises more than 6,000 workers.

The organization is the voice of workers not formally represented by a union and has been successful in workplace justice campaigns where binding agreements with high-profile restaurants operate in the same manner as a collective bargaining agreement. The tactic has been successful and they have played an integral role in winning minimum wage increases, and improvements in workplace policies in various states.

The median hourly wage for restaurant workers nationwide is $8.59. But for many of them, their wage is far below that mark, and there are no real repercussions for employers who exploit workers by denying them a living wage, overtime pay and opportunities for advancement. In addition, the employers often violate health, safety and employment laws.

The U.S. Department of Labor mandates that “an employer of a tipped employee is only required to pay $2.13 an hour in direct wages if that amount plus the tips received equals at least the federal minimum wage, the employee retains all tips and the employee customarily and regularly receives more than $30 a month in tips. If an employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages of at least $2.13 an hour do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage, the employer must make up the difference.”

In the case of the restaurant workers organizing with ROC at Andiamo’s, the employer didn’t make up the difference.

Once Andiamo’s management began cracking down on Debebe-Bogale and other disgruntled employees, they installed cameras in break areas and told workers that complainers would be terminated. They also refused to let Debebe-Bogale come to work until she signed documents eliminating her employee rights.

So she and other Andiamo’s workers took their case to the federal court and to the streets, where they have mobilized more than 1,000 community members in weekly protests outside the restaurant.

“I hope workers see what’s going on and that this gives them the courage to not be afraid because they are not alone,” said Debebe-Bogale.

Less than 1 percent of restaurant workers are unionized. Nearly 90 percent of those workers don’t have health insurance or are underinsured.

ROC-United is working to change the rules of the game for the industry’s workers through their six-point program. (See box at right.)

ROC-United sees worker-owned cooperative restaurants – or COLORS, as they’re known – as one avenue to rescue workers from exploitive restaurant jobs.

COLORS restaurants promote ethical eating and responsible employment, and also host job skills training programs for the industry’s low-wage worker members during the day and operate as dining establishments at night.

“Nothing satisfies you better than being a part of something that is really making a difference. It’s OK to be afraid, but you can still fight. You can still stand up for your rights,” said Debebe-Bogale.

Gwynne Marie Cobb

For more information, visit
For video of the ROC rally, visit


ROC-United’s 6-point program

ROC-United is a national restaurant workers’ organization that engages in six programs:

1. Developing new restaurant worker organizing projects.

2. Providing training and technical assistance to restaurant worker organizing projects.

3. Conducting national research on the restaurant industry.

4. Engaging in national policy work to improve working conditions for restaurant workers, including initiating and managing a national restaurant worker health insurance program.

5. Coordinating national campaigns of restaurant workers.

6. Convening restaurant workers across the country.