The owners of Liberato Restaurant don’t know who they’re up against.
Today, current and former employees of Liberato, a Caribbean eatery in the Bronx, will speak out about the wage theft and discrimination they’ve suffered for years. The press conference is part of an ongoing, worker-led campaign against the restaurant, which saw its public launch in April when a handful of the workers, flanked by dozens of supporters and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, marched into the restaurant and presented the managers with a list of demands, including compensation for stolen wages, an end to sexual harassment and structural changes, like a grievance process for workers.
“For many years, I’ve had to do magic in order to survive because, despite working 60 hours or more per week, the salary was low and below minimum wage,” said Oscar Ramírez, one of the former employees at Liberato. Ramírez was fired in December 2013 after asking a manager why he wasn’t being paid minimum wage.
The campaign being led by Ramírez and his fellow workers is being supported by the Laundry Workers Center, a development and training program for low-wage workers in New York City that catapulted to national fame with its first campaign against Hot and Crusty, a chain of pizzerias across New York City. This initial campaign, which is now the subject on an award-winning feature-length film The Hand That Feeds, ended with the workers booting out some of the original investor-owners, forming a union and winning unprecedented protections, including collective bargaining rights and a union hiring hall. Ramírez had a front-row seat watching this dramatic campaign unfold because he worked across the street from one of the Hot and Crusty outlets in Manhattan. He reached out to the Laundry Workers Center for help, and now he and Mohama López, one of the Hot and Crusty workers, are leading the Liberato campaign, along with Laundry Workers Center’s Rosanna Aran.
The successes of the Laundry Workers Center are both part of, and a contrast to, the larger national wave of fast-food worker strikes. Recently, this national campaign, backed by the Service Employees International Union and centered on the demand of a $15-an-hour minimum wage, has swung toward fighting against wage theft and sexual harassment on the job — issues that the Laundry Workers Center has combated since its formation. However, the Laundry Workers Center has put significantly more emphasis on leadership and organizing development. Perhaps the best example is López himself, who began as a worker with a grievance and ended up becoming one of the Laundry Workers Center’s lead organizers. This successful worker-to-organizer development is one that has been lacking during the national fast-food worker strikes, which many say has thwarted the campaign’s growth.
The situation at Liberato is similar to that of thousands of restaurants across New York and other cities. Despite working upward of 50 hours a week, many workers aren’t paid overtime, while others aren’t even paid minimum wage. Multiple female employees have reported being subject to both verbal and physical sexual harassment. One woman was sexually assaulted by a manager on the job.
Both wage theft and sexual harassment are common experiences for low-wage workers, particularly those in the restaurant industry. According to the National Employee Law Project, more than $18 million are stolen from restaurant workers in the city ever week — a figure that amounts to a loss of more than $3,000 for each New York City restaurant worker annually. As for sexual harassment — whose prevalence has become an explosive national conversation over the last few weeks through social media campaigns like #YesAllWomen — the practice is rampant in kitchens and on dining room floors across the country. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the restaurant industry receives more sexual harassment claims than any other industry.
“This isn’t just about Liberato,” said Virgilio Aran, one of the founders of the Laundry Workers Center. “This is a great problem in New York, and it’s the theft of wages. This happens in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Washington Heights, Crown Heights… It is a symptom of a bigger problem.”
Since presenting their list of demands to management, current employees at Liberato report being threatened with dismissal and, in some cases, physical violence. One worker said that a manager threatened to break his teeth. Former and current employees at Liberato are holding a press conference today at the restaurant to speak out against these threats and others.