The 23 workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, which is one of a string of 24-hour cafes in New York City, have been organizing against the chain’s exploitative boss for nearly a year. After enduring below minimum wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, the workers reached out to labor organizations and began attending Occupy Wall Street meetings last fall. With the support of OWS and the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organizing group, the workers organized an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in backpay and safer workplace conditions.
Two weeks ago, however, the workers learned that the owner, private equity investor Mark Samson, planned to close the restaurant and fire all the workers. Incensed by the retaliation, which the Hot and Crusty Workers Association’s lawyers said was illegal because it was intended to discourage organizing at other restaurants in the chain, the workers and community members occupied the restaurant for hours last Friday. They held a workers’ assembly inside the occupied store until the police arrived and arrested six people who refused to leave.
On Monday, the workers opened their own restaurant, the Worker Justice Cafe, on the sidewalk outside the now chained-shut store. Run democratically and supported by other NYC unions, including 32BJ and the Domestic Workers United, they served coffee, bagels, donuts and other pastries on a donation basis. After four days of a 12-hour picket and the afternoon cafe, the company’s lawyers called for negotiations.
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