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9/11 restaurant worker survivors open fair wage businesses

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VOICEOVER: Among the thousands who perished in the September 11 attacks were 73 mostly immigrant low-wage workers who worked in the upscale restaurant Windows on the World on the top floors of the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the surviving workers searched for new employment, and some of them started the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which has grown to a national movement for restaurant workers rights. Andalusia Knoll reports from New York.

ANDALUSIA KNOLL, FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: At a restaurant near New York’s bustling East Village, servers sit among the neatly set tables polishing silver and lighting candles. In a few hours, patrons will fill the room, deciding between quinoa curry salad and Korea bulgogi barbecue. But this isn’t just any New York City eatery. It formed as part of a workers justice movement known as ROC that was born under the chaos of the September 11 attacks. Over the last decade, ROC, or the Restaurant Opportunities Center, has expanded to eight chapters across the country and more than 8,000 members.

FEKKAH MAMDOUH, CO-OWNER, COLORS RESTAURANT: I survived 9/11. I used to work at Windows on the World Restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center.

KNOLL: Fekkah Mamdouh is one of the founders of ROC and Colors, this unique eatery that was opened by former Windows on the World workers.

MAMDOUH: And after 9/11, we start ROC New York to help restaurant workers all over the city to find jobs and to navigate the system. And part of that, since we start the organization, it was like we have to start this, we have to start a restaurant where we have to own the restaurants in the memory for people that were lost on 9/11, the 73 workers that were lost on 9/11. We want a place where the survivors can come and remember them and the families can come and remember them.

KNOLL: Many employees working at restaurants near Ground Zero lost their jobs following September 11 while the area was closed off and rebuilt. One of those workers, Oscar Gallindo, discovered the Restaurant Opportunities Center and helped create Colors, where he’s now a co-owner and line chef. Gallindo said starting a worker-run and -owned restaurant was a new beginning in multiple ways.

OSCAR GALLINDO, CO-OWNER, COLORS RESTAURANT (VOICEOVER TRANSL.): Normally within the system there is the boss, the owner, the manager, those who manage the business, and then the workers. The system, what it does in general is oppress the workers so they will produce the maximum possible. Many places, they yell, they don’t pay minimum wage, they take the money from your tips away. The idea was that this would be something different to show these bad restaurant owners that we can create something with respect and dignity.

KNOLL: This hierarchy creates wage disparities among restaurant workers, often along color lines. According to The Color of Food, a recent report by the Applied Research Center, workers of color are highly concentrated in low-wage food service jobs, such as food preparation and fast food. Ivonne Lui, chief researcher for this report, says her analysis of federal labor data showed systematic racism in the food industry.

YVONNE LUI, CHIEF RESEARCHER, APPLIED RESEARCH CENTER REPORT: People of color who work in the food chain make about–more than $5,000 less per year. And this plays out in all four sectors of the food chain that we looked at, including food production, food processing, distribution, and food service. And as women, there’s also a gender penalty for workers as well. So for every dollar that a white male worker earns in the food chain, a woman of color earns almost half that.

KNOLL: To address these disparities, ROC started started the Chow Institute to provide free training at the colors restaurant, so members can work their way up in the industry and obtain better-paid jobs. Colors has been so successful in advancing restaurant workers rights and helping thousands of people receive training in the industry that it has spawned other restaurants. Phil Jones is the manager of a new Colors that opens this month in Detroit. It aims to carry 80 percent locally sourced food from Detroit’s many urban farms.

PHIL JONES, MANAGER, COLORS: –want to show people that there’s a model out there for treating workers properly, for putting out good products, for expanding your local food economy and strengthening food systems in general, you know, even down to creating healthier food access.

KNOLL: ROC says people worldwide have contacted them about starting similar organizations in their countries, and members hope the movement to create a more dignified industry will continue to spread and grow over the next ten years. Andalusia Knoll, FSRN, New York city.

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