How the Government Could Save Move-And Protect Workers

Trey Kovacs

3/30/2013 12:01:00 AM - Trey Kovacs

Editor's note: This piece was co-authored by Alex Habighorst.

In this era of sequestration, why is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) awarding millions in grants to an organization under Congressional investigation?

The group in question is the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a union-backed "nonprofit" organization that bills itself as providing a path towards upward mobility and a better life for restaurant workers. Yet it is under investigation over charges of alleged multiple health violations, and is notorious for exploiting vulnerable members of society and intimidating restaurant owners.

Initially ROC's purpose was to help the displaced restaurant workers from the World Trade Center. However, since then, it has transformed into a highly political and aggressive front group for UNITE-HERE set on "organizing the more than 160,000 restaurant workers" in New York City.

ROC also operates a restaurant that sells a vision of cooperative ownership whereby workers are promised a stake in the business in exchange for their labor, which ROC elegantly calls "sweat equity." But it seems that ROC treats its workers more like indentured servants than restaurant servers.

ROC's New York restaurant, Colors, has been described by former employees as, "one of the most abusive in the city," profiting from hundreds of hours of free labor. According to one employee, "ROC-NY used us and many others to perform hundreds of hours of unpaid work. They even had us kick back our tips when we worked at parties and events as cooks and waiters."

After promising these workers a stake in the business after many hours of toiling, ROC unilaterally changed its agreement with them. Workers would not get any stake until at least five years of work in the restaurant, and even then their share would be dwarfed by that of investors and management. ROC also runs a Colors restaurant in Detroit and has advocacy centers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Miami.

While ROC treats its employees like serfs, it has the chutzpah to tell other employers how to run their businesses. It recently launched a campaign to unionize and gain a payoff from the restaurant of celebrity Chef Mario Batali. During this campaign, ROC representatives harassed customers entering Batali's establishment and vandalized the premises of his restaurant. ROC's intimidation tactics went so far that Batali secured a restraining order against the organization. But ROC remains undeterred, as it continues to harass other business owners unwilling to meet its demands.

But that's not all. ROC has been lobbying Washington for an increase in the minimum wage, from which it would be exempt since its workers are, technically, trainees and not employees.

ROC's record on sanitation is hardly any better than the treatment of its workers. Its New York restaurant was cited by the city's Department of Health for multiple health violations, including evidence of rodent infestation in food areas, kitchen surfaces not properly washed, and
food improperly stored.

Is this the work of an organization concerned about worker's rights and safety?

OSHA, the federal agency charged with assuring worker health and safety, seems to think so. It has given ROC and its affiliates over half a million dollars in grants from 2006-2011, mainly to conduct training and provide research to enhance workplace safety. ROC has also taken over $2 million in grants from other federal and state agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the State of New York.

President Obama has warned that sequester cuts to OSHA's budget would "leave workers unprotected" by reducing worksite inspections by 1,200 leading to an "increase in worker fatalities and injuries."

If the president is serious about protecting the health and safety of workers, he should cut federal grants to ROC-which is precisely the kind of organization OSHA was designed to protect workers against.