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NLRB Breathes New Life into Lodi’s Restaurant Union

The National Labor Relations Board is pursuing charges of illegal union-busting tactics at the prestigious Italian restaurant.

10:45 AM EDT on October 27, 2023

(Jessie McCall / Unsplash)

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board announced that they are pursuing union-busting charges leveled against management at Lodi, an Italian restaurant in 1 Rockefeller Plaza, by a proposed union of the restaurant's workers, and that the Board will seek an order for management to recognize and bargain with the union. 

The union effort stretches back to January, when front- and back-of-house workers opted to join Restaurant Workers Union Local 1, asking for better working conditions and benefits, and for management to resolve a wage discrepancy that paid kitchen workers $18 to $21 an hour, less than the $25 paid to cashiers. 

But Mattos Hospitality, chef Ignacio Mattos's company which owns Lodi and other acclaimed restaurants in the city like Altro Paradiso and the Michelin-starred Estela in Soho, did not voluntarily recognize the union. Instead, they hired Luis Alvarez, who Labor Notes describes as a "notorious union-buster," and held captive-audience meetings decrying the union. The results of an initial election on February 27 and 28 were not in the union's favor—they lost 21-26.

Normally, the workers would have been defeated. But this past August, the NLRB determined that "if an employer who seeks an election commits any unfair labor practice that would require setting aside the election…the Board will order the employer to recognize and bargain with the union." Because the workers filed unfair labor practice complaints against Mattos Hospitality, and because the NLRB has decided to pursue them, the company must now recognize and bargain with the unionized workers.

The charges the NLRB is investigating include, according to a statement by the union, "solicitation of grievances, threats to close the restaurant down, incitement of racial hatred, illegal captive-audience meetings, threats of firing, managerial interrogation of workers regarding union support, threats of loss of benefits, impression of union surveillance, coercive statements, promise of benefits, and unlawfully directing employees to oppose the union." Mattos Hospitality did not immediately return a request for comment.

It's hardly a surprise that management of highly-acclaimed New York restaurants might feel at liberty to push back so forcefully (and illegally) against organizing efforts. The restaurant world in New York is one of those industries that, because of its air of prestige, might be thought of as exempt from or less compatible with the idea that workers deserve a fair contract. Diego Opperman, a representative for the Restaurant Workers Union Local 1 who does not work at Lodi, told Hell Gate in an interview that "entire generations have passed since unions had a significant presence in the restaurant sector." 

However, Opperman said, "The restaurant sector is notorious for low wages and poor working conditions, not because of any peculiarity of restaurants, but because of the extremely low union density in the industry. By contributing to organizing the sector, we hope to be able to change that." 

Opperman said that unionizing restaurant workers presents very specific challenges, including high turnover, which can make sustaining an organizing effort difficult. "Other things are factors, like the division between front and back of house where you not only have very different conditions of work but also different wage structures."

Opperman added, "Hopefully what we've accomplished at Lodi so far will show workers what is possible."

The Restaurant Workers Union told Hell Gate that following the call, Mattos Hospitality entered settlement talks with the NLRB. In those talks, the Union said, the employer sought a re-run of the election, which the NLRB refused, sending the case to a trial that the Union anticipates will take place in March of 2024.

Updated (10/27/23, 11:57 a.m.): This story has been updated with further comment from the Restaurant Workers Union.

Some links that show workers what's possible:

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