On the fourth anniversary of a strike, Alexis, a server at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York, reflects on the action with her coworkers.
Today marks four years since eleven workers walked out of Ellen’s Stardust Diner in the middle of their shift, leaving the world-famous Times Square venue without its primary draw, its singing servers, right before the dinner rush. The Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike that evening was meant to assert worker power after the owner fired sixteen union organizers the week before, taking the total number of people terminated to thirty-one. Terminations were reversed later that year in a settlement supervised by the NLRB, in part due to actions such as the ULP strike. It was just one of many bold actions taken by Stardust Family United (SFU), the union formed at the diner in 2016 under the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and built purely on worker solidarity and action.
Recently, I re-edited video footage of the strike, which brought on an onslaught of nostalgia and made me realize both the significance of that moment as well as the differences with how SFU operates today. I decided to share this new version of the video with some of my coworkers and record their reactions.
Scabs on strike
“Watching everybody come together just brings back the feeling of how scary that was and how hard we worked…it’s almost like I take it for granted because we act collectively a lot now. I forgot how crazy that [felt] just to pull that off,” says Amanda, one of the worker-organizers fired the week before the strike (now back in the diner). “We had spent the last two months…with new people that were hired in the place of old workers and building those relationships up. The majority of people that walked out were people who were hired to replace the first set of workers who were fired.”
As one of those “new people,” I can attest to how crucial those relationships were to spurring us to action. Rather than treat us like “scabs,” union organizers bonded so deeply with us that after only being there a few months we struck over their unfair terminations.
“They hired scabs, but you didn’t see yourselves as scabs and we didn’t see you as scabs and so then their whole plan just went out the window,” says Max, another server who was terminated in the week before the strike. Max wrote SFU’s anthem, “The Tower,” which you can hear in the video. Describing his experience that night, he maintains that “the biggest thing is pride. I think we were all just so proud of what we were doing, and proud of the people who were still in there who had more power than us at that point because they were employees. By that point I was gone, I had been fired by then. So this pride, and the people who still had something to lose when it came to that place taking a stand and walking out, was just so beautiful.”
Excitement and planning
One of those workers with something to lose was Mollie. “I just remember looking across the [diner] at each other, like making nervous eye contact and kind of feeling the glee rising within us,” she recounts. “The anticipation leading up to that shift… all day I had nervous energy and of course that got exponentially worse when I walked in the door for work that afternoon. But knowing that we were all in it together, there wasn’t just one person that was doing this ‘rebellious’ thing; we were all doing it as a unit … the excitement definitely overpowered the fear. It was all very strategic and felt really safe even though what we were doing was scary.”
Amanda also recalls workers psyching each other up and the countless phone calls she had with organizers and those working that shift in the week leading up to the strike. The shift had been carefully selected for the action because of the implications of disrupting prime Friday night business, and because of the many of the strongest union supporters were already scheduled to work. Organizers of the strike called each server on that shift to ask if they would walk out, and those who were too uncomfortable swapped shifts with others who were willing to strike.
Every detail, from the exact time of the walkout to the route workers took to exit the establishment, was meticulously planned. “A big moment that stuck out for me in the video was the actual walkout through the kitchen,” says Shannen, another server who walked out that night. “I don’t know if I blocked out that part, but I forgot that we were literally just going through the swinging door to the kitchen and then out the back door and around. And just something about walking through the kitchen and going out feels so much more intense than just going out through [the main entrance or exit]… I feel like that was more of a power move… because we did go through the [kitchen] door there was no way we were mistaken for a customer; it was clearly a line of employees walking out of the restaurant.”
More importantly, the action was visible to every worker, both on the floor and in the kitchen. “I forgot those moments when they were walking through the kitchen and high fiving [other staff] and the back of house was all there supporting it,” says Amanda. “I remember that happening and that being a big deal, but to see it again refreshes that…and a few years later [back of house workers] led a walkout.”
Customers and workers on shift weren’t the only witnesses to the strike. Servers fired months before, IWW organizers, and employees not on shift such as myself and Emé met strikers outside, and joined them in leading a musical picket. “That was my first ever union thing that I did,” says Emé. “So [in the video] I clock myself being all the way in the back.”
Knowing something was afoot at Stardust that night, servers would only tell me to go to a nearby bar after my shift where a union gathering was underway. I made the auspicious decision to bring along Emé, who at that point had absolutely no exposure to our organizing, to what I thought would be a chill union meeting or people waiting to hear about an action at the diner. “I just remember walking in and it was full of Stardusters and I didn’t really know these people but I knew of these people… everybody was either making last minute posters or chugging some drinks and getting ready for what was about to happen, and I was like ‘fuck yeah!’. And so I can’t remember if it was you who put a sign into my hand [it was], and I was like, ‘this is it, this is my sign! Let’s go!’”
At the appointed hour, the group marched from the bar over to the diner, quieting ourselves as we got close and crossing the street a block over to avoid calling attention to ourselves. When the strikers came outside, we hit them with silly string and hugged them and positively cried with celebration and gratitude for one another. After watching the video, Mollie could hardly believe “just how many people were outside! Like, waiting for us, waiting to receive us, and waiting to join the cause and kill that line [laughs]… seeing it again is like, ‘we all did that, we did THAT!’ The number of people that were involved with that night, not only planning it but then those of us that executed it and then those of us, not even employees of the diner, but like IWW people waiting to receive us outside. Just the support from all four corners was ridiculous and amazing!”
Risks worth taking
I asked my coworkers about workers who may watch this video and fear that organizing at their own workplace could have consequences such as getting fired. Three themes surfaced.
The first was that their fears are valid. “We’re taught not to sugarcoat it, I mean, you can get fired. You and I could have gotten fired many times,” smiled Emé.
Shannen added, “I think it’s okay to watch this video and be nervous that you could potentially get fired. But we, the people who walked out that night didn’t get fired… you have to stand up for what you believe in.”
As someone who did in fact get fired earlier that week, Max was unapologetically direct: “if you’re afraid of getting fired, that’s a very valid fear. But if you come from a place of any sort of support where you can get over that fear, then be an example… and fight for what is right.”
Here the second theme emerged: embracing support, unity, and solidarity. Mollie put it beautifully, saying that “Finding common ground and even finding common fears with your coworkers, that’s going to bond you together. There is safety in numbers, there is power in numbers, and although you’re afraid, the end result of feeling safer at work is worth it. It’s worth the fear, it’s worth the risk, and that’s having integrity at your workplace, it’s fighting for what you deserve and fighting for safety and health for you and everyone that comes after you.”
The third, resounding commonality was the need to fight. “I would just say, what are the other choices that you have? Go somewhere else? What’s going to happen there? Keep on with the treatment that you have? That’s going to get really old,” said Amanda.
Emé echoed, “if not this job, when will you act up? Because jobs are shit everywhere. And at least if you try to organize at this job, you have the opportunity to work somewhere where you and your coworkers are heard.”
A lot can change in four years, as we all know. Rather than spend agonizing hours deciding if an action is possible, now “We don’t spend a lot of time contemplating whether to collectively act or not,” explains Amanda. “It’s more like ‘how do we do it? How can we do it so that it’s successful? How can we do it so we have the most capacity?’ Those kinds of things.”
Shannen confirmed that “SFU is stronger, I think it has grown. The union knows how to handle anything that comes our way. I think what was done that night set the groundwork for everything the union has done since then.”
Emé added, “We’re at a point in our union where it gets weaker and stronger in different ways. Sometimes people aren’t motivated, but… in a pinch we really come together and we make some pretty serious shit happen. Especially with the pandemic, when we raised almost $30,000 for the back of house, I don’t really think other unions have that motivation the way that we do.”
Mollie maintained that the most important parts of the union remain steadfast. “Even though the members of SFU have lots of different interests and things going on in our lives,” she reflected, “I think we can all agree that the necessity of the union is still as strong today as it was then. Like, once everything finally reopens, I know that the union will be essential in keeping all of us safe, in making sure we’re being taken care of… I think that our voice is always going to be necessary.”