The Organizer's Corner
What are the major campaigns you are working on right now, and what motivated them?
We founded ROC-NY to provide support to restaurant workers and victims' families from Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. Over the last two years, we have expanded our efforts to fight for restaurant workers citywide, for improved working conditions. We have four major campaigns: (1) a major fight against a large restaurant corporation that owes 25 workers over $300,000 in unpaid wages and denies workers lunch breaks and vacations; (2) organizing workers to open their own cooperative restaurant that will serve as a model for the industry, and will create worker-owners who can infiltrate the New York State Restaurant Association, our opponents; (3) a campaign to win U-visas for undocumented survivors of 9/11; (4) a campaign to pass local legislation to protect restaurant workers' rights.
What strategies have you developed or are you using on the campaigns?
We use public demonstrations, worker meetings, media outlets, coalition support, and more to win our campaigns.
How have you learned from and incorporated previous organizing experiences (your own or others')?
I used to work at the Workplace Project, a Latina/o immigrant worker-organizing project in Long Island. I learned some of the strategies from there, but mostly we have created a lot of strategies by meeting with our members and brainstorming. We also share a lot of strategies with Domestic Workers United, one of the few other industry-based worker centers nationwide.
Are you working in collaboration/coalition/solidarity with any other organizations or individuals? What forms does this take?
Yes, we are part of several coalitions—Third World Within, Jobs With Justice—and formed one ourselves: the Restaurant Industry Coalition.
What can people do to help?
Volunteer or donate.
After a rough week of organizing or when certain disappointments hit, what provides the inspiration to keep moving forward?
Our members. They are beautiful, wonderful low-wage immigrant workers from all over the world. They come with beautiful stories from their home countries and courageous stories about their arrival in this country. Every day they work like crazy to support their loved ones here in NYC and abroad. They are human, like everyone else, not perfect, but in particular the members who stay involved with the organization, to fight for the rights of their fellow workers, are wonderful, warm, kind people. Four of our seven staff are former restaurant workers, so I get to see them every day. In particular, my co-founder Fekkak Mamdouh, who came from Morocco and worked in the restaurant industry for 16 years. He and all of them are the best inspiration I could possibly have.
What is your greatest challenge in your campaign or organizing work?
The opposition in the restaurant industry is very organized and very powerful (the New York State Restaurant Association) and very opposed to any kind of worker control.
What does solidarity mean in your organizing work? (i.e. with other groups,across issues, etc.)
On the day Domestic Workers United had a march for domestic workers' rights, for example, we took a contingent representing ROC-NY, and one of our members spoke at the rally, expressing solidarity as restaurant workers for the struggle of the domestic workers. We attend each other's rallies and events, and support each other's causes.
What are you reading?
Love and Longing in Bombay, by Vikram Chandra
How does ROC-NY understand the relationship between alternative institution building, such as the development of cooperative restaurants, and the organization's campaign work? How does this process relate to wider movement building? How do such institutions challenge capitalism?
Our challenge to capitalism is not simply building alternative institutions, but actually, over time, through several cooperative restaurants, developing new owners (who would otherwise acts as agents of capitalism) who will infiltrate the New York State Restaurant Association and ultimately co-opt it for worker's rights. On the whole, we are challenging powerful restaurant corporations to give more power and control to their employees through our corporate restaurant campaigns, lifting standards throughout the industry through our legislative campaign, and a creating a model for the industry through our cooperative. Throughout it all, we are politicizing workers and future coop owners through biweekly political education sessions, discussing and challenging them to think critically on everything from the war in Iraq and Palestinians' rights, to capitalism and globalization. As a result of these sessions, we are able to take politicized workers to large mobilizations against the war, globalization and the Israeli occupation.