The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) grew out of a relief effort for the displaced employees of the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center tower destroyed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Within two years, ROC evolved into a vehicle for organizing and potentially unionizing (under the auspices of the Hotel Employees-Restaurant Employees union, now within the UNITE-HERE federation) non-union restaurant workers.
ROC claims not to be a labor organization, but it frequently acts as if it were one. A left-wing alternative newspaper in New York (ROC’s hometown) reported, “Bargaining and union-style brinkmanship are exactly what it does.” ROC has been served with at least one restraining order for harassing customers of restaurants against which ROC protested.
ROC director Saru Jayaraman has said that exemption from the regulations on a labor organization under federal laws is critical to ROC’s operations model. She wrote:
Since they are not constrained by the same restrictions that unions face, these worker centers have been able to find creative models for organizing extremely marginal, contingent workers, in their own language and often outside the [alleged] intimidation of their workplace.
ROC has openly endorsed the dubiously legal tactic of “minority unionism,” by which union-like entities purport to represent employees and potentially bargain over working conditions without making an attempt to determine if a majority of employees support the effort. Jayaraman told the website Dollars & Sense, “One difference between [ROC] and a union is that in a union you have to get a majority of a shop. In our case we just get a group of workers, but not necessarily the majority.”
To promote an alternative manner of restaurant organization, ROC operates a restaurant, COLORS, in Manhattan. And while ROC devotes much of its efforts to campaigning for minimum wage increases and paid sick leave mandates, the restaurant affiliated with ROC was sued for requiring workers to work time without pay. COLORS was also served with $50,000 in New York State tax warrants.
Additionally, COLORS has received poor New York City health inspection scores (38 and 18 demerit points), suggesting ROC’s claim that it looks out for health and safety is simply hypocritical. ROC’s use of unpaid survey-takers and interns has also led to criticism.