Restaurant staff fight for coworkers left out of pandemic relief

Marianne Garneau interviews a restaurant worker organizing support for migrant coworkers who cannot access government assistance in the wake of pandemic-related layoffs

The restaurant industry in New York runs on migrant labor – especially the “back of house” or kitchen — much of it undocumented. As explained in this excellent article by Eater, employers are fully aware when they are hiring undocumented labor, but use third-party fixers to maintain “plausible deniability if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) comes knocking.”

When most restaurants closed last month, migrant workers were left out of account, by both employers and government. The undocumented will not receive stimulus checks, and cannot even access benefits like unemployment insurance, even though they pay billions in taxes and into Social Security on their paychecks. Even documented migrant workers risk long-term penalties for accessing relief, because of a new “public charge” rule that discriminates against them with respect to residency or citizenship if they use certain kinds of public assistance.

One union looking to address this is Stardust Family United. SFU is a solidarity union at the landmark Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square, home of the singing waitstaff. Workers have been organized with the IWW since 2016 (full disclosure: I worked as an outside organizer on that campaign). They don’t have — or even want — formal recognition or a contract, but they nonetheless regularly secure gains and improvements in the workplace, including fixing unsafe equipment, winning pay raises for workers, and ending tip theft. Membership in the union is voluntary, and instead of dues checkoff by the employer, they have a worker “delegate” who collects dues from workers every month, depositing them into the union bank account. Formally chartered with the Department Of Labor and IRS, they elect a treasurer and secretary every year — also “rank-and-file” workers in the workplace.

The restaurant closed on March 16, along with most businesses, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the main attraction of the restaurant was the singing staff, it has not remained open for take-out. As a result, all staff have been laid off. Some have been able to apply for unemployment insurance, and receive other government aid, but they also immediately thought about their coworkers who may not have so easy a time. Therefore, the singing staff started a fundraiser, donating $2,000 of their own dues to kick it off, and set to work offering to sing requests for donors.

I spoke to Alexis, one of the workers at the restaurant and organizers of the fundraiser.

Tell me about what you are doing.

We are fundraising through GoFundMe for our coworkers who are struggling the most right now by being out of work. I believe it was March 16 that [we] got a message from management that all employees would be laid off and furloughed until this crisis was over. That’s over 200 people, and there are some that are struggling more right now. [The fundraiser is] for those who need it most.

How did you decide to do this?

The idea had been floated around by some members of the union. At some point our secretary said we should have a meeting to discuss it, and discuss the parameters of the fundraiser. I think there were 21 union members on the call. We decided to do the fundraiser as Stardust Family United, and we set up parameters: who is eligible, and the deadline for applying for aid and for the fundraiser, how money would be handed out and split between people.

How are you running it?

There are about seven of us on this fundraising committee. There are a lot of different parts to this: running the webpage itself, keeping the momentum going, reaching out to staff. We are trying to split up those tasks between the people on this committee. We also had to gather the contact info for all 200 employees. We had the campaign go live [last] Monday, and now we’re just trying to figure out how to keep [up] the momentum.

You contributed some of your own dues?

During the Zoom call with the union, we voted to start the fundraising off by donating $2,000 from dues we’ve collected. So it started with a $2,000 donation from SFU. I think it was a unanimous vote to do that.

And people are donating individually?

There are a lot of SFU employees that have donated their own money to the campaign. They’re part of the group that doesn’t need extra assistance right now.

What about the boss? Are you putting pressure on the employer to help these workers out?

That is something we’re still discussing, but ideally we would like to see the owners either match what we fundraise or make some kind of contribution.

Tell me about the rewards you are giving to donors.

That’s our brand, is singing. You can make a song request if you donate a certain amount of money, and we’ll send that to you personally. We’re hoping that will incentivize people. We’ll continue to use our talent and the time we have now.

Can you tell me what you think this fundraising effort represents? How does this relate to your union?

I think it’s a shining example of solidarity because none of us are contractually obligated to do any of this, but it really goes back to “an injury to one is an injury to all.” When there are people suffering who we work with, we take it personally and we want to help them.

Are there other examples of this kind of solidarity between “front of house” and “back of house?”

We have worked with them to make certain demands of management and owners. And we’ve won those demands. Pay raises, getting their uniforms laundered by the company, and a big one was when the A/C was not working, and it was the guys in the kitchen who were suffering the most because they have the stoves and all this equipment in a very small space. We all decided as a workplace, one shift, to walk out until they fixed the A/C. So we do our best to help them with what they need.

Donate to their relief efforts here: