Your Tax Dollars at Work . . . to Harass Employers Over Wages

Your Tax Dollars at Work . . . to Harass Employers Over Wages
August 9, 2013

Eric Boehm

Eric Boehm writes for the Pennsylvania Independent, where this column first appeared. (read full bio)

Labor activists using tactics adopted from the Occupy Wall Street movement are crashing restaurants across the nation in an effort to raise wages for workers – and they’re receiving taxpayer money to fund the effort.

Using a combination of federal grants and grants from left-leaning organizations, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, or ROC, is technically a charitable nonprofit and not a union. But their pro-worker messages, anti-employer protests and self-proclaimed goal of organizing service sector employees for the purposes of negotiating higher wages make ROC look and sound much like a labor union.

Some see their tactics as a deliberate attempt to skirt the nation’s labor laws. Only unions elected by a majority of a workplace can negotiate with employers on workers’ behalf, though ROC seems to be doing so in the absence of any election.

But others, including the head of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for dozens of labor unions, see ROC and groups like them as the new face of labor organizing in America.

Bankrolled With Taxpayer Cash 

While the Restaurant Opportunity Center is working to increase wages for some workers, they are getting paid, in part, with federal tax dollars.

According to tax filings for ROC United, the parent organization that has launched the smaller chapters operating in many cities, the group got $180,000 in government grants during 2010 and another $60,000 in similar grants during 2011.

The organization’s budget was about $1.72 million in 2010 and $2.65 million in 2011 – meaning taxpayer dollars accounted for a little more than 5 percent of their operating costs.

Other funding for ROC’s initiatives comes from the usual left-wing sources, including grants from the Tides Foundation, a group that also gets tax dollars from the federal government, as a previous Watchdog.org investigation uncovered.

Disrupting Diners

Some Republican members of Congress are asking for an investigation into a Department of Labor grant to ROC.

The group employs disruptive “mic-check” tactics made popular by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Take ROC’s July 25 action at the Capital Grille restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

On that day, during the usual lunch rush, a signal was given — and more than a dozen protesters stood at their tables and shouted their concerns to all within earshot. They were calling attention to what they said was an unfair minimum wage law that allows restaurants in New York City to pay their tipped workers only $5 per hour.

“Capital Grille, shame on you. Restaurant workers deserve fair pay too,”

It wasn’t only happening in New York.

At the same time, a similar group gathered outside an Olive Garden restaurant in center city Philadelphia.

“If we don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace,” they chanted in unison.

Across the nation, minimum wage activists rallied outside Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille restaurants – all of which are owned by the same parent company, Darden Inc. – to decry corporate lobbying they say puts a lid on the minimum wage for restaurant workers.

Labor Unions’ Orchestrations

But these supposedly grassroots efforts were in fact a well-orchestrated assault launched by ROC and labor union allies in several major cities. Other groups, such as the SEIU-backed Fast Food Forward, are working toward the same goal.

According to the group’s Web site, ROC began targeting Darden restaurants because the company joins with the National Restaurant Association, to lobby Congress in order to keep wages and benefits low.

Darden Restaurants did not return calls seeking comment.

A similar effort targeting a chain of New York restaurants owned by Chef Mario Batali came to an abrupt halt last year when Batali sought and received a restraining order against ROC.

Using Tactics Illegal for Unions

Rather than unionizing a work place and using the collective bargaining process to negotiate with employers, groups like ROC use loud protests designed to attract public and media attention. They threaten lawsuits and disrupt business.

In short, they use techniques that would be illegal if they were an actual union, said Stefan Marculewicz, an attorney who specializes in labor issues.

“Labor organizations by their very existence are supposed to be democratic institutions,” Marculewicz said. “A majority of the workers have to sign up, or they have the option to not sign up.”

But ROC is not a union. And because they do not have to gain support from a majority of employees at a certain business – as a union world before it could begin negotiating with employers – groups like ROC can make their voices heard and their presence known without officially representing the workers they claim to support.

Maria Myotte, communications director for ROC, did not return calls and emails seeking comment on the organization’s strategy. But in a 2007 interview with the New York Post, one of ROC’s top officials described the practice as “minority unionism.”

“While a union has to go in and organize the majority of a shop to get some kind of collective bargaining agreement, in our case we’ll have a group of workers come in … a small number from a restaurant, and we will ‘organize’ them to create a demand letter, eventually file litigation, protest in front of the restaurant and get press,” said Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of ROC.

Used with permission of Watchdog.orrg.

Eric Boehm

Eric Boehm writes for the Pennsylvania Independent, where this column first appeared. (read full bio)