“I vividly remember being so anxious and miserable at work that I was getting drinks for a table, singing a peppy show tune, and crying,” says Meghan Doherty, who worked for six years at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, the Times Square restaurant popular with tourists because of its waitstaff, who perform numbers from Broadway musicals between taking orders. Doherty is just one of more than 50 Ellen’s employees who unionized for better working conditions in August of 2016 and allegedly faced mass firings and accusations of theft in retaliation. Yet, despite these challenges, Doherty and her coworkers are proving that unions don’t have to resign themselves to a slow decline—they just have to be different.
Waitstaff at Ellen’s say that, while they had long suffered from the routine miseries of the restaurant industry, the arrival of a new management team in January of 2016 made their already-poor working conditions unbearable. To the litany of complaints about verbal abuse, health and safety violations, and illegal worker’s compensation denials, employees could now add arbitrary firings, wage theft, intimidation, and harassment. “People were terrified to come to work because they might be written up or fired for not picking up straw wrappers fast enough,” says Doherty. For its part, management denies any wrongdoing: “We have always treated our staff quite well—with fairness, flexibility and respect,” says Ellen’s owner, Ken Sturm, in a statement.
In response to the worsening conditions, Ellen’s staff began casting about for a union to help them. Although they put out many calls, they only received one answer: from the Industrial Workers of the World.
Founded in 1905 in Chicago, the IWW is an international labor union that advocates worker self-organization. With members, affectionately known as “Wobblies,” embracing a philosophy of revolutionary unionism predicated on worker control of industry, the IWW grew rapidly around the globe. According to Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW, the organization had locals in at least 17 countries on all six of the inhabited continents by 1927. At the union’s height, over 100,000 Wobblies were leading campaigns, strikes, and boycotts that were to forever change the working conditions of millions—most famously with the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. No doubt because of this strength, the IWW was also the target of brutal suppression from all levels of government, and membership dropped precipitously by the 1930s. But the Wobblies never quite died out, and their membership rolls have been steadily growing in recent years. Carrying on its history of organizing workplaces that other unions overlook, the IWW has more recently supported employees at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s, as well as undocumented workers, like those of Tom Cat Bakery in New York City. (Full disclosure: The author is a member of the IWW, although he has not been involved in the Ellen’s Stardust campaign.)