But would workers really be better off if a union owned a fast-food franchise or any other kind of business? Gawker author Hamilton Nolan thinks so.
In Nolan’s piece, he commends the union-backed Fight for $15 PR campaign to raise the minimum wage. Despite praising the union-led movement, he concedes that a PR campaign cannot demand improved working conditions or higher wages, but a union could and would in Nolan’s opinion.
So Nolan suggests that a union should buy a fast-food franchise and prove that a union workplace, one that pays living wages and has safe working conditions, can succeed.
Nolan concludes, “Big unions are spending millions of dollars on this campaign. Take a chunk of that money and start your own franchise. These arguments are all theoretical, until they aren’t.”
While this may not be an apples to apples comparison, the Restaurant Opportunity Center United (ROC), a union front-group, did start its own restaurant with less than stellar results.
ROCExposed.com, a ROC watchdog organization, has the details on ROC’s failed attempt at running COLORS, a restaurant located in New York City, which was supposed to be a worker haven, where workers are owners, working conditions are pristine, and advancement/training opportunities are available.
As ROCExposed points out, ROC routinely criticizes restaurant employer practices, but former COLORS employees lodge the same complaints against ROC:
To purchase their “share” of the restaurant, COLORS employees were required to provide 100 hours “sweat equity”—a requirement that was later increased, according to a lawsuit filed by then-board member Orlando Godoy. These hours were often worked without pay. Nearly half of the core group of “worker-owners” had left by the time the restaurant opened its doors, claiming “they could not afford to keep waiting for a dream.”
Remaining “worker-owners” were asked to sign a contract requiring more unpaid work as a condition of membership. Godoy, a board member who refused to sign the contract,was expelled as a result of his decision.
Godoy later filed a lawsuit against ROC claiming improper termination and a failure to compensate employees for hours worked. He was joined in the lawsuit by other members, including Behzad Pasdar. Pasdar had riled ROC’s leadership by questioning whether COLORS would—as originally promised–be a company owned by its employees. Instead of full ownership, restaurant stock was to be divided up equally between ROC management and the restaurant’s investors, with a promise that 20 percent would be given to worker-owners at an unspecified future date.
Said Pasdar of his experience: “I’ve spent my whole life working in city restaurants, but nothing was as bad as the three years I spent with ROC.”
COLORS has also run afoul of health and safety regulations:
While ROC specializes in pointing out employers for violating “health and safety regulations,” its own restaurant has failed to live up to the standards it has set for others. One 2011 inspection of COLORS found 38 violation points due to reasons including “evidence of mice or live mice” in food prep or dining areas, food that wasn’t protected from sources of contamination, and “food contact surfaces” that weren’t properly cleaned.
The restaurant presently has a B grade, due to 18 violation points received on the most recent inspection in March of 2012. Again, evidence of “mice or live mice” was found, and cold food was being stored above its recommended temperature. Several of the restaurants that ROC has targeted in the past—such as the Red Eye Grill, Daniel, Del Posto, and Smith & Wollensky—presently have better letter grades than COLORS.
In addition, where ROC encourages low-wage workers to protest and strike against their employers, ROC prohibits its employees from doing the same. According to ROC’s contract with its workers, they may not participate in “strikes, lock-outs, sit downs, sit ins, slowdowns, sympathy strikes, picketing, stoppage or interruption of work, or direct or indirect interference or interruption of the operations of [ROC].”
If ROC’s experience running COLORS is any indication of how a union-run fast-food franchise would operate, then unions are better off continuing to complain about the lack of good jobs rather than trying to create them.