Score another victory for resistance. After thirty-one workers sued his acclaimed restaurant Del Posto, celebrity chef Mario Batali has agreed to a $1.15 million settlement.
The employees are members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’s organization, whose two-year battle with Batali has included boisterous protests outside of his fine-dining restaurant in West Chelsea.
While refusing to admit guilt, Batali management said in a statement for reporters: “B & B Hospitality Group is proud to share that we have come to an amicable resolution with the ROC and look forward to working with ROC-NY to continue to foster and improve mutually beneficial relationships with our team.”
ROC’s suit, brought in federal court, charged that workers were discriminated against and deprived of tip money and overtime. The settlement includes an agreement to expand the restaurant’s paid sick days and vacation policies and to institute a promotions policy and cultural sensitivity training for management.
“Mario Batali has actually done the right thing,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC-United, the national network of which ROC-NY is a member. She continued:
As a result of workers standing up and saying "we’re being discriminated against" a chef that was very abusive was fired; there are new policies in place to help workers move up the ladder in Mario’s restaurants; he’s also agreed to work with ROC to promote what we call the “high-road profitability" in the industry…Workers standing up can lead to victory and change.
Stand up and sue. Some might say that’s strategy enough. The settlement with Batali was ROC-NY’s tenth resolution of a workplace justice campaign in their decade of operations, winning a total of more than $5 million for aggrieved workers. But Jayaraman and her colleagues go further. Founded after September 11, 2001, by workers, many of whom had been employed at the World Trade Towers’s restaurant Windows on the World, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) has grown into a national organization with 8000 low-wage restaurant worker members in eight locations. They bring suits and protest, produce reports, partner with “high-road” employers and train members for career advancement. They are also launching a major initiative to involve restaurant-goers.
The nation’s 10 million restaurant workers are among the country’s lowest-paid employees, laboring mostly without protections or benefits for a median wage of $9 an hour. The legal minimum wage for tipped workers (like restaurant workers) has stood unchanged at $2.13 since 1991. Lawsuits are great, says Jayaraman,
But at the same time there’s got to be broader change because going restaurant by restaurant, we’re not going to win. There are ten million restaurant workers in America and over a million restaurants in America; we need to see some policy change. And for those small mom and pop restaurants, change is better when it happens across the board rather than restaurant by restaurant. We are not asking people to stick their neck out and pay a much higher wage; instead we want the floor to be lifted for everybody.