Food Workers Strike Back

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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.

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.

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.

has a friendly disposition, which he employs in conversation to smooth over
whatever difficulties have come his way. Crossing the Mexican-American border
with a coyote — a smuggler of migrants — was no big deal, he says, even though
the coyote was detained and imprisoned at the border, leaving 18-year-old Lopez
in charge of the rest of the group once they reached Texas. Lopez also talks about his father’s
early death deftly, explaining that it left him a good job as a gas station
attendant, which Lopez assumed when he was 13. His relaxed demeanor didn’t
inure him to things like chaotic protests; as a boy growing up in Mexico City, he was
generally against marches.

thought: The people are crazy,” he remembered.

aversion to chanting crowds doesn’t mean that Lopez can’t be rash and impulsive
in his own life. “Me enojé” —
which means “I got angry” in Spanish — is frequently his answer for why he made
various life decisions, from quitting unpleasant jobs to immigrating to the
U.S. But what Lopez sees in himself as recklessness, labor organizer Virgilio
Aran sees as the type of pride and steadfast character that can make someone a
good organizer.

very disciplined, that’s one of the most important qualities,” said Aran, who
became involved in the Hot and Crusty campaign at the end of 2011. “He has been
developing throughout the campaign, but I think that quality came with him
before I met him.”


who co-founded the Laundry
Workers Center
along with his wife, Rosanna Rodriguez, first heard about Hot and Crusty when
he received a call from one of Lopez’s co-workers, a man named Omar. At that
point, the campaign was in its “super-secret” infancy. It consisted only of
Lopez and two others, Gretel Areco and Gonzalo Jimenez, encouraging trusted co-workers
to call the city Labor Board’s anonymous hotline. This, at first, was about as
radical an action as Lopez was willing to take against his boss’s threats and
frequent tirades. Omar hadn’t yet been vetted, and his unsolicited offer to
call Aran put Lopez in a panic.

moment was one of Lopez’s first brushes with the heart-racing anxiety that can
come with organizing. By the end of the campaign, it would become a frequent

it turned out, Omar was trustworthy, and Aran was one of the city’s best
unaffiliated labor organizers. The newly-formed Laundry Workers
Center was looking for
its first campaign — although, as the group’s name implies, Aran had been eying
the city’s notoriously exploitative laundry industry, not the low-wage
restaurant business. Aran began an eight-week political education crash-course
for the Hot and Crusty workers, and Lopez became his most curious and
determined pupil. As the New Year approached, few could expect what was on the
horizon — both for the Hot and Crusty campaign and on the national scene.

the labor movement, 2012 began with all the paralysis of an election year,
combined with the gloomy disappointment of the failed
Scott Walker recall campaign
in Wisconsin
six months earlier. To many grassroots activists, organized labor was too
lumbering and bureaucratic; to nearly everyone else, it was a pension-hungry
special interest group that no longer belonged in today’s economic reality.

the end of the year, however, labor had re-established itself through the
popular teachers’
strike in Chicago
, the first
successful strikes
at Walmart stores and warehouses in its 50-year history,
the world’s largest private employer, the airport workers’ Thanksgiving Day
walkouts at LAX, and the
beginnings of an ambitious campaign
to unionize employees at McDonald’s,
Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains in New York City. The movement
seemed invigorated, bursting with new leaders — and nowhere was this rapid
transformation happening faster than at the fringes of the labor world, where
the organizing could be focused on worker empowerment rather than continually
being constrained by restrictive labor laws.

places I see [exciting organizing] happening most consistently are on what we
would call the margins of the former labor movement,” writes
Jane McAlevey,
a labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the
Labor Movement
. This, she explains, “is in a lot of the immigrant

a blistering cold day in late January, smack in the middle of Manhattan, Mahoma Lopez and his small cadre
of co-workers and volunteer organizers went public with a 50-person march to
his Hot and Crusty store, where Lopez delivered a list of demands to a stunned

me, that was one of the most incredible moments,” Lopez remembered. He
confessed to being so nervous that, nearly one year later, he couldn’t quite
believe that it had been he who delivered “la
carta de demandas


to the scale of the teachers’ strike or the snowballing Walmart walkouts that
would erupt less than six months later, the Hot and Crusty fight was minuscule.
Yet, the backdrop — the Manhattan
food-service industry — was a microcosm of today’s highly globalized and highly
unequal economic system.

the city’s tens of thousands of restaurants net an annual profit of more than
$12 billion, according to the New York State Restaurant Association. Inside the
sector’s hierarchy, however, this wealth hardly trickles down. The majority of
the jobs the industry produces are low-wage, no-benefit positions that are
overwhelmingly held by immigrants, about a third of whom are undocumented.
According to a 2005
, 60 percent of surveyed workers reported their bosses violating
overtime laws, and one-third reported being verbally abused at work.

workers like Mahoma Lopez often endure the most exploitative conditions.
According to a 2010 New York Times investigation,
Mexican men are more likely to be employed in the restaurant industry than any
other ethnic group, including American-born workers, in part because fear of
deportation and desperate economic need makes them unlikely to report
below-minimum-wage pay or workplace abuse.

this addiction to cheap labor drives down wages throughout the industry,
investors and private equity firms end up accumulating much of the resulting
profits. The chain that includes Lopez’s Hot and Crusty is owned by Praesidian
Capital, a $700 million company with a white South African operating partner
named Mark Samson. To the Hot and Crusty workers and supporting organizers,
Samson — living in a high-rise around the corner from the restaurant — became
the symbol of the industry’s power imbalance. Rumors flew about his investing
practices and his numerous chains of restaurants. But the bottom line that
sparked the labor struggle wasn’t jealousy over Samson’s and other investors’
tax filings — it was their labor practices.

doesn’t matter how rich you are, it matters what type of situation you’re putting
the workers’ lives in,” said Diego Ibanez, a volunteer organizer who worked
with Lopez and Aran to plan actions throughout the Hot and Crusty struggle.


that first freezing march, the escalation on both sides was fierce. The employees
organized and won an independent workers’ association recognized by the
National Labor Relations Board in May. They received tens of thousands of
dollars in back pay, only to learn that the company decided to close the store
in retaliation against the newly formed workers’ association. At that point,
the legal handbook went out the window, and Lopez’s impulsiveness became
indispensable. Far from being against a noisy protest, Lopez now hungered for

like to joke about the most radical things we could do, and he always liked
those conversations,” said Ibanez. When we joked about occupying the workplace,
and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that.’ He liked the possibilities of

August 31, the day the manager came to inform Lopez that the store was to be
closed — a decision made weeks earlier — Lopez, his co-workers and a handful of
community members rushed into the restaurant and prevented its closure by
holding a workers’ assembly. The action resulted in multiple arrests and kicked
off a picket line and a week-long sidewalk cafe that, fittingly enough, opened
for (free) business on Labor Day.

back-and-forth continued. Finally the company relented, only to reveal that
unpaid rent had soured the relationship with the landlord, who wouldn’t renew
the lease. The workers’ picket stretched into its second month, straining
finances and spreading fatigue. Still, Lopez remained a bedrock of the

one point, his financial situation had become so precarious that Virgilio Aran
found Lopez — who has a wife and two sons to support — a part-time job, which
kept him away from the picket line for the first time since it began.

first day that he went to the part-time job, one of his co-workers stayed at
the picket line himself,” said Aran. “Mahoma called me that night and he said,
‘I won’t take the job. That was my first and last day.

here in the struggle for the victory, and the picket line is more important
than getting some type of income,'” Aran remembered Lopez saying. “That’s his

in late October, the company ceded to the workers’ demands — agreeing to reopen
the store, recognize the workers’ association and sign a collective-bargaining
agreement that included paid vacation and sick time for the workers, required
wage increases, a grievance and arbitration procedure, and a union hiring hall
that gives the association the power to hire new employees. That night, after
Lopez learned that he had finally won, he sat down and called every single
organizer and thanked them.

next week, as he waited for the store to reopen, Lopez became the newest
volunteer organizer with Laundry Workers’ Center. According to Aran, Lopez is
now one of the lead organizers on another underground labor campaign.

like any seasoned organizer, if you ask Mahoma Lopez about the new campaign, he
won’t reveal a word.

Photo by Workers of Hot
and Crusty. Used with permission.

Cafe Wars Trailer from Robin Blotnick on Vimeo.

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