The #MeToo movement has slammed NYC’s high-end restaurant industry pretty hard.
Mario Batali, the prestigious founder of Babbo, and Ken Friedman of the famed Spotted Pig, now stand accused of sexual harassment and assault at the workplace. Both have apologized for their behavior.
The industry is notorious for sexual harassment. And, despite the naming and shaming, the problem could get worse.
Workers in NYC tony eateries used to be well-represented by unions, but during the Ronald Reagan era, with workers’ rights and private-sector unions on the defensive, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union made organizing in this part of the labor force a low priority. Since 2001, many workers have organized with the Restaurant Opportunity Center, which has been able to improve conditions via protests and media exposure, even though it’s not a union.
But now business interests are seeking to weaken the power of groups like ROC, says organizer Jane McAlevey, author of “No Shortcuts: Organizing For Power In The New Gilded Age.” The Supreme Court is considering a case, National Labor Relations Board vs. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., that can profoundly limit the rights of non-unionized workers. “And no one is talking about it!” fumes McAlevey.
If the court rules in Murphy Oil’s favor, restaurant workers would find themselves with little recourse if they are sexually harassed (or endure other abusers) on the job.
At present, workers can hold public protests, as ROC does. Workers also can file class-action suits. They can do that without getting fired, because of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects “concerted activity” among workers even if they don’t have a union.
A ruling for Murphy Oil would gut Section 7, leaving workers with fewer protections, including the ability to file class-action suits. It’s cheering to see some of the city’s highest-profile bosses held accountable for horrible behavior, but the public bloodlettings won’t make workplace harassment go away on their own.
And if the court decides for Murphy Oil, we will need unions even more.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.