Until recently, the Laundry Workers Center United’s claim to fame was a rabble-rousing protest encampment on Times Square, a self-fashioned “Worker Justice Café” erected by workers as part of a unionization campaign at a Hot and Crusty bakery. Back in 2012, their foolishly brave, Occupy-inspired tactics proved successful in challenging their employer’s power. Now the LWC is facing its own challenge in court, accused of illegally “conspiring” to protest against a boss.
According to a complaint brought by the LWC’s latest campaign target, the Liberato restaurant in the Bronx, the LWC isn’t a humble worker center, agitating on behalf of low-wage immigrant workers, but a racketeering enterprise, waging class warfare against a local business.
The allegations of gangsterism stem from a basic labor dispute: a group of current and former workers have partnered with the LWC to campaign against the restaurant over alleged labor violations and mistreatment. After the conflict escalated and the LWC took legal action last year—with a class action lawsuit and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint now pending—the restaurant responded with a classic New York tactic: the countersuit. Liberato has variously charged the LWC with slander and harassment, as well as violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). This federal law, a curious hybrid of reactionary politics and organized-crime fighting, has historically been used to nab both mob bosses and union organizers. The suit seems to follow a rich tradition of corporations seeking to criminalize collective action as labor’s “extortion” of capital.
Maggie Andres Crecenio, a server at Liberato, sees her boss as the real racket. She claims that she and her coworkers have been repeatedly shorted on wages and cheated out of overtime hours, as the restaurant flagrantly violated minimum wage and overtime standards. A worker might be paid little as $210 for a fifty-four-hour work week, they say, and some were subjected to intimidation and sexual harassment, and subsequently punished for protesting.
When Crecenio complained, the boss reportedly retaliated by “disciplining” her, giving her a position with a heavier workload. Aside from an end to the abuse, she says, workers demand basic provisions such as adequate heating in the winters, a punch clock to properly count their hours, and a good first-aid kit, so kitchen workers don’t have to use potato skins to salve their cuts.
“I’ve been working for the company almost six years,” Crecenio says, “and I know how long and how [hard] we’ve been suffering…. we want the company to treat us like a person, not like an animal.”