Food Workers Strike Back



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For Mahoma Lopez, a long-time restaurant worker in New York City, it came down to a decision between fight and flight. Last fall, his boss at the cafe on the Upper East Side where Lopez had worked for years began cutting hours and screaming at his employees, withholding overtime pay and threatening to fire anyone who complained. Being Mexican-born and with halting English, Lopez had been in this position before. Time after time, he’d quit; to be a proud man in his industry required a fair number of employment changes.

“Hot and Crusty —” Lopez said, smiling as he began the story of his most recent employer, one in a chain of cheap, 24-hour eateries sprinkled across Manhattan. Lopez leaned back in the flimsy chair of the pizzeria a few blocks from his Queens apartment. With his large stomach thrust forward and his wide cheeks covered in a trimmed beard, the 34-year-old looked stately, almost regal.  

“In December, the campaign began underground,” he said.

Last month, Lopez and his co-workers at the Hot and Crusty on 63rd St. won a suspenseful and highly atypical 11-month labor campaign. The battle pitted 23 foreign-born restaurant workers, supported by a volunteer organizing center and members of Occupy Wall Street, against a corporate restaurant chain backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm. The campaign itself was filled with enough twists, betrayals and finally triumphs to be the subject of an upcoming documentary, Cafe Wars (check out the trailer, below). Yet the story of Mahoma Lopez’s own year-long evolution from an employee to an organizer exemplifies the new, dynamic direction of the U.S. labor movement that appears to be on the brink of resurgence.

John Shields
12/7/2012 1:40:10 PM

A most inspiring story of what is possible when courage and determination fuel collective action.

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