Workers Centers


With only 8 employees and 1,900 members, the Restaurant Opportunity Center-New York (ROC- NY) is David to the Goliath of the restaurant industry and all of its commensurate associations and legal teams. ROC-NY is a workers center, a non-union organizing body for workers, doing some of the most groundbreaking work within labor circles. Originally founded in April 2002 to assist workers left jobless after the destruction of Windows on the World, a World Trade Center restaurant, ROC-NY has grown beyond that simple mandate and become a training center, an organizing resource, and restaurateur. 

ROC-NY encourages anyone working within the restaurant industry that has a complaint about wage and hour violations by their employers to contact them. Because of this open door policy, ROC-NY has organized workers in restaurants throughout the city, assisting them in advocating for improvements in their working conditions and adherence to labor law. “We go after the highest profile restaurants,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC-NY. One high profile campaign against the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group was won through litigation, protest, and press attention. At its resolution Smith & Wollensky agreed to pay ROC-NY members more than $100,000 and to abide by state wage law. 

Like most other workers centers ROC-NY is a non-profit organization that survives on grant money and “some small amount of dues,” according to Jayaraman. Nonetheless, they have managed to grow and are now expanding into other cities, New Orleans among them (Jayaraman declined to name the others). And their work is spinning off into areas well beyond what is typical of labor organizing. 

In 2006 ROC-NY opened Colors, a cooperatively-owned restaurant in trendy Astor Place. All Colors employees are also co-owners; they receive profit sharing with a base salary well above the industry standard. In addition to providing dignified work to members, Colors provides the restaurant industry with a good example to follow, according to Jayaraman. In addition to serving diners, the restaurant is used as a training school during the day for members/employees seeking to move into different facets of the restaurant industry. 

When ROC-NY members decided to start a cooperative restaurant there was no domestic example that operated on a scale they were planning, so Jayaraman traveled to India to research the workings of the world’s largest cooperative restaurant. In the end this example, and funding from an Italian co-op, started Colors which is now celebrating its first anniversary. 

In addition to Colors, ROC-NY conducts research on the restaurant industry, documenting working conditions and wages. They function as a hiring hall for members by distributing material about open positions at other establishments. They teach classes on labor rights, English as a second language, computer skills, and facets of the restaurant industry like baking, bartending, or waiting tables, exhibiting vision far beyond the contract maintenance and collective bargaining typically associated with labor organizations. 

Workers centers are designed for people who work in the service sector or other hard to organize sectors of the workforce. Typically, they are not based in particular work sites, instead focusing on entire industries or defining themselves by ethnic groups or geographic areas. They include groups like the Garment Workers Center in Los Angeles, Young Workers United in San Francisco, and the the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. Most focus on industries typified by low wages and/or high turnover and do not shy away from difficult fights for contracts or financial benefits.  

Workers centers use radically different tactics from those of labor unions. They don’t negotiate contracts between workers and employers. Many do not charge dues to members. Instead, they invest heavily in political education and are open to any aggrieved worker, unlike unions who only assist members in unionized workplaces. 


Organized restaurant workers in NYC—photo from

They can do this because they are governed by different rules than unions. Though workers centers organize heavily within workplaces, many also function as a community organization, using this connection as a pool of support.  

In order for a union to gain a foothold in any workplace they need a majority of workers to vote for them. Workers centers, because they do not engage in collective bargaining, do not need a majority of workers, just an active minority, allowing them greater flexibility, which is necessary in workplaces where employees may not stay long enough for a formal election. In addition to high turnover, there are other factors that confound traditional labor unions when they try to organize in some industries, such as rampant subcontracting, immigration status, and legal barriers. 

The California apparel industry, worth more than $24 billion per year, is a case in point. The industry employs 100,000 garment workers who are forced to work an estimated 52 hours a week for $3.28 an hour. This group of workers are primarily immigrants and 87 percent of them speak a language other than English. The average LA garment worker is paid by the piece for work completed, with no benefits or sick time. A Department of Labor Survey in 2000 found that two of every three Los Angeles garment shops did not comply with wage and hour laws. These workers are in desperate need of representation, but only 1 percent of them are union members. Major unions have tried to organize this industry, with little success. UNITE established a Garment Workers Justice Center in the 1990s, but chose to move on years later to focus on other aspects of the garment industry.  

Garment workers are difficult to organize because employers often threaten to close shop if they are faced with an organizing drive. Workers are intimidated by their employers, unaware of their rights, and cannot risk their jobs to join a union campaign that may or may not be effective. Moving into this space between need and impediment is the Garment Workers Center (GWC) that assists garment workers who file claims against employers that violate wage and hour and health and safety laws. GWC also organizes boycotts and takes large employers to court on behalf of their members. 

The GWC is a small organization with six employees and a budget of $380,000 per year, none of which comes from unions or dues. They get their funding entirely through grants and non-profit foundations. The GWC has had some success. They launched a campaign against Forever 21, a high priced retailer. The campaign was settled in December 2004 in favor of the claimants. They also run a series of monthly educational workshops on wage and hour laws and health and safety regulations. 

Garment workers and other workers in the service sector are difficult to organize because of their marginalization, quick turnover, and the active resistance of their employers. But some workers are barred from organizing by the law itself. Taxi drivers are a prime example. Repeated National Labor Relations Board rulings have held that taxi drivers are legally considered independent contractors, even if they work for the same employer day in and day out on a schedule set by the employer. This designation prohibits them from engaging in collective bargaining or joining a union. 

In 1998, in a bid to better their circumstances, several organizers from the Communities Against Anti-Asian Violence spun off  the organization’s Lease Drivers Coalition to become its own organization—the Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA). Nine years later the group represents about one-fourth of New York City’s 26,000 taxi drivers, who begin every day more than $100 in debt after paying their medallion fee. On average, they make $26,000- $33,000 per year for 60-70 hours of work a week. 

The TWA struggles to improve drivers’ pay and to fight against ethnic discrimination and harassment from police departments. There are now TWAs in 19 cities. They have won some groundbreaking victories, like establishing a living wage standard for NYC drivers and fighting off increased insurance premiums demanded by New York’s City government. 

TWA made the headlines in 1998 when they led a successful strike against taxi regulation changes proposed by then Mayor Guiliani. The strike brought New York to a halt and a follow-up protest worried Guiliani enough that he ordered the NYPD to stop it—a move that a federal judge later declared a violation of cab drivers’ First Amendment rights. 

Garment workers protest a clothing store in LA—photo from

A second strike in September 2007, in response to Mayor Bloom- berg’s mandate requiring GPS tracking for all NYC cabs, brought thousands of cabs off the streets in protest. TWA successfully fought to raise the cab fare by 11 percent, effective December 2006. 

With the growth of the workers center movement came the need for coordinating structures and national networks developed to fill that need: Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a Chicago-based group aiming to strengthen ties between the religious community and labor organizations, founded a workers center network in 2004; and The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (ND- LON), a Los Angeles-based group founded in 2001. In August 2007, a third national network was born when ROC-NY founded ROC-United, a network designed to coordinate new ROC chapters. 

Parallels have been made between the growth of the workers center and the growth of the service sector. Both expanded dramatically during the 1990s—the service sector increased by 19 million jobs and now accounts for about three-quarters of GDP. The number of workers centers grew from 25 to around 140 in that same time period. 

Vanessa Tait, author of  Poor Workers Unions: Rebuilding Labor Unions from Below, points to a number of factors to explain the growth of workers centers. These include immigration patterns, access to grant money for non-traditional labor organizing, the growth of the service sector, and union disinterest in organizing so called “hard to organize workers.” Tait sees the roots of the current workers center phenomenon going back to the beginnings of the labor movement. Then, unions functioned in much the way workers centers function now—with an emphasis on community involvement and a holistic approach to engaging people. She also points to successful civil rights struggles for fair hiring practices that were not associated with unions, examples of unemployed worker organizing, and groups like Maryland’s Freedom Union that operated in the mid-1960s organizing workers who were openly shunned by unions. For her it’s not a new development, it’s on a continuum. 

“The labor movement had failed to adapt,” according to Tait and “people had to find ways to organize.” This relationship is very clear in some cases. Tait’s book documents several examples of union ambivalence spawning new organizations. In one of these, Chinese workers scattered among several restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown approached the Hotel Restaurant and Bartenders Union, Local 69 for help organizing. Local 69 was ambivalent and the campaign to organize was run mostly by the workers themselves. Once a contract was in place the workers found that its provisions were not enforced by Local 69 and, after several disappointments, the Chinese Staff and Worker’s Association was formed as an independent union and took over representation from Local 69. 

Over the last several years connections have developed between workers centers, the AFL-CIO, and Change To Win. In San Francisco the central labor council gave Young Workers United their Labor-Community Action Award in the summer of 2007; they say that they consider the group practically members. ROC-NY was founded after UNITE-HERE asked co-director Saru Jayaraman to form a group to assist Windows on the World workers because they didn’t have the capacity. The two groups remain closely aligned. And both NDLON and IWJ have ongoing contact with local labor councils and the AFL-CIO. 

These slowly developing connections were codified in 2006 when the AFL-CIO passed a resolution allowing labor councils to affiliate with workers centers. The first to do this was the New York City Labor Council, which affiliated with the Taxi Workers Alliance. The groundbreaking deal gives the TWA access to one million union members in the labor council and resources like the Consortium for Worker Education, a council-run school. It gives the council 7,000 more members who have shown themselves to be creative, capable of organizing, and willing to strike. 

A Philadelphia member of the Taxi Workers Alliance during a 24-hour protest and strike in May—photo from

The resolution allowing this alliance to happen was negotiated between the AFL-CIO and NDLON. The deal was the first concrete step taken by either the AFL-CIO or Change To Win toward a lasting relationship with this growing sector of the labor movement. This is an imminently necessary step given that major labor represents only 6 percent of low-wage workers, a fact that played a part in the fracturing of the AFL-CIO in 2005. 

Since affiliating, Edward Ott, executive director of the NYC Central Labor Council, says that the Taxi Workers Alliance has become very active in political council meetings. For their part, the labor council supported the TWA during their last strike in September 2007. Ott adds that he and the labor council are less interested in making the TWA the most active member of the council and more interested in supporting their organizing. With 46,000 taxi licenses in NYC and 25,000 drivers on the road on any given day, “they’ve taken on quite a task,” Ott says. 


Colin Asher is a freelance journalist.