Lodi, an Italian-style fine dining cafe in Rockefeller Center, has what the New York Times calls “a captive audience” given its central location in a Manhattan tourist magnet. Workers at the restaurant say they’re a captive audience of another kind—for the anti-union diatribes of a highly paid consultant.
They are demanding that the cafe improve working conditions, benefits, staffing, scheduling, and training—but the major sticking point is wages. Kitchen workers earn between $18 and $21 an hour, while cashiers earn $25, and there’s no discernible reason for the discrepancy.
The 51 workers will be casting ballots February 27 and 28 on whether to unionize with the newly formed independent Restaurant Workers Union, Local 1.
A mix of front- and back-of-house workers announced their union on January 25 and asked Mattos Hospitality Group, which runs Lodi and other upscale restaurants, to voluntarily recognize it. Instead, management hired union-buster Luis Alvarez to hold captive-audience meetings, where the workers have been forced to sit through a barrage of lies and distortions about unions.
Workers say the meetings began January 30, four times a day, split between morning and afternoon shifts.
Captive-audience meetings are a common anti-union tactic. But National Labor Relations General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo proposed in an April 2022 memo that they should be treated as an unfair labor practice. The union has filed ULP charges.
AN APPEAL TO IDENTITY
Alvarez initially presented himself under the alias “Luis Medina,” and he was introduced as a “friend” of management. After the union exposed him in videos on Twitter and Instagram, he allegedly told workers the alias was to protect his identity.
He may have a reason to do so—Alvarez has an extensive record of failing to dissuade workers from organizing. For instance, when insurance retail workers in California filed to join the Teamsters last year, Alvarez was hired for eight weeks to bust the union, according to an LM-20, a detailed report anti-union consultants must file with the Department of Labor. The employer hired other union-busters, too, but the workers won their union anyway.
These union-busters present themselves as neutral, but they’re anything but—and they typically get paid tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars to fight a single union drive.
Take bilingual union-buster Lupe Cruz, who trades on his organizing background with UNITE HERE. Cruz fought the United Electrical Workers (UE) in 2021 in its successful union drive at the bottler Refresco in Wharton, New Jersey.
As at Refresco, the majority of workers at Lodi are Latino.
Cruz and Alvarez have teamed up in other (failed) efforts at union-busting, like when Ryder truck drivers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, organized with the Teamsters last year, and when AT&T telecom workers in Puerto Rico joined the Communications Workers in 2019.
It seems Cruz and Alvarez have found their niche, targeting Latino or immigrant workforces, in what Intercept reporter Lee Fang has called the “changing face of union-busting.” The antiunion industry has retooled—now union busters use language, identity, and social justice rhetoric to sow confusion and drive a wedge between workers.
“In the meetings, they told us that we shouldn’t trust English-speakers in the union, as the English-speakers were trying to confuse us,” said Lodi dishwasher Osvaldo in a press statement. But he saw through the paternalism: “All of the workers at Lodi have a common interest in winning fair pay and dignity.”
The restaurant’s chef and owner Ignacio Mattos invoked his own immigrant background in a letter he sent workers after the union asked for voluntary recognition. He told the Guardian the same thing: “As an immigrant, I place particular importance on everyone’s opportunity for advancement.”
Mattos was born and raised in Uruguay on a dairy farm his family owned in Santa Lucia outside of the country’s capital Montevideo—hardly the common experience of propertyless, working-class Latino immigrants.
In a TikTok video, a Latino worker says at first he thought working at Lodi would be different because the owner was Latino. But he goes on to say how the employer has begun to pressure workers as the union campaign gained traction. Another worker chimes in to say management is pitting workers against each other by disseminating false information that undocumented workers can’t be in unions.
With the Latino workers, the union-busters are relying on an appeal to identity. With other workers, they’re using the same old playbook.
Alvarez “basically said that he was a neutral party when it comes to unions,” said a kitchen worker who asked to remain anonymous. He said Alvarez found ways to imply “the union is not really good, without blatantly saying it.” For instance, Alvarez showed workers anti-union lobbyist Rick Berman’s website unionfacts.com; he said joining a union would be “a gamble” and “be sure that you are fully educated before you make a decision.”
Now days before the union election, workers say Alvarez has photographed them to surveil union activities and Lodi management has plastered the restaurant with flyers. Some flyers bear the heading “Labor Board Update” to give the false impression that they are National Labor Relations Board notices urging workers to “Vote No for No Union.”
When he and his co-workers started talking about forming a union, the kitchen worker said, “I looked up stories about how Starbucks and Amazon workers unionized. And then I also realized that most restaurants aren’t able to unionize like we are doing.”
Restaurant workers have one of lowest rates of unionization in the nation, less than 2 percent. Among the challenges are high turnover and an atomized workforce in small worksites.
The Starbucks example has generated a lot of optimism and raised expectations, among restaurant workers and across industries. The kitchen worker said he began following Starbucks Workers United organizers on Instagram.
The flip side is watching the baristas face anti-union retaliation: “Starbucks shuts down stores, and it gets a bit scary,” said Molly, a baker who asked to use only her first name.
Like the Starbucks campaign when it began, Restaurant Workers Union is a scrappy grassroots campaign relying on worker volunteers.
“There is something undeniably inspirational about [Starbucks Workers United] winning these stores election by election, each generating more media coverage, more joyous victory photos, and more TikTok videos,” wrote John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, in New Labor Forum. “It was never about their size, always about their ability to excite young workers and others to want to organize their own workplaces.”
“If we’re successful being only 50 employees, I think that’ll provide a lot of hope for people who have been burnt out by the industry for a long time,” said Molly. “I’m feeling pretty good that we will be successful on Tuesday night.”
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