A group formed to free restaurant workers from the yoke of exploitation is about to be sued for exploiting them in turn.
Saru Jayaraman founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) to help workers displaced after 9/11. The group opened Colors, a restaurant billed as an employee-owned co-op paying top wages and embracing its workers’ cultures. Meanwhile, ROC protested alleged unfair practices at several prominent city restaurants, as well as more general political causes such as the Iraq War.
That’s when Jayaraman went, according to one employee, straight from “Che Guevara” to “Stalin.” Workers at Colors were forced to sign contracts promising to advance ROC’s social agenda, including mandatory protest time. They put in long hours without pay, believing they were building equity in the co-op. One worker described working from 6 a.m. into the evening and then approaching ROC staff to ask for subway fare home. His request was refused.
When they finally saw a contract, the workers learned they were not exactly full owners but would earn salaries for the first five years. After that, they would share a 20 percent stake, with ROC taking 40 percent and investors the remainder.
The unhappy ending to this corporate fairytale: When the employees complained, they got the boot.
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