Day 27: It's a religious thing
“What are you doing?” someone asked.
He must have been curious to see a band of diverse people walking around Greenwich Village in Manhattan, carrying crosses and singing together on that cold and drizzly spring day in 2011.
“We’re doing social justice themed stations of the cross. We’re visiting sites where we notice Christ-like suffering today.”
“Today is Good Friday, the Friday before Easter. This is when Christians honor the death of Jesus. We tell the story of how he was crucified. We are honoring his ministry by calling out ways we continue to harm and kill the “least of these” among us.”
The person who had asked the question nodded, still looking confused, and walked away. Shrugging, he turned to the person next to him. “It’s a religious thing.”
It was indeed a religious thing. One of my classmates at Union Theological Seminary was doing her field education at Judson Memorial Church, and in partnership with various justice minded organizations they had organized this pilgrimage. As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist who had recently begun discovering how deeply Christian practices resonate with me, I was incredibly moved by the experience.
One of the partners in this endeavor was the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York City or ROC-NY. And thus, one of the stops on our pilgrimage was Babbo Restaurant, one of Mario Batali’s upscale Manhattan dining establishments.
If you have already read this year’s UUA Common Read, Behind the Kitchen Door, you are familiar with ROC and you know about their Batali battle. But in case you have yet to read Saru Jayaraman’s eye-opening book about the sexism, racism, difficult working conditions and low wages that restaurant workers deal with, I’ll explain.
Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was co-founded in 2002 by Saru Jayaraman, a young Indian-American woman with experience in community organizing, and Fekkak Mamdouh, a Moroccan immigrant with 17 years of restaurant experience. Mamdouh had been working at a restaurant located at the top of the World Trade Center and it was tragically destroyed on September 11th, 2001. The owner of the restaurant promised the surviving workers new jobs, and when he didn’t follow through they started organizing, getting Jayaraman to help them. Thus, ROC was born, and it took on a life of its own as they responded to the many issues facing restaurant workers across our country.
In 2011, when our motley crew was making our Good Friday pilgrimage in Greenwich Village, ROC-NY was in the middle of a public campaign that focused on Batali’s restaurant Del Posto. They were taking Batali's company to task for mistreating workers, especially Latinos, and for unfairly withholding tips and wages. When we stopped at Babbo we read the passage in the Bible where Jesus is given his cross, and we mourned the racism and xenophobia that prevented Latinos from gaining the positions they deserved and the wages they had earned at Del Posto.
But, just as Jesus rises up on Easter Sunday triumphant, ROC also triumphed over injustice in this case. As Jayaraman puts it in Behind the Kitchen Door, “it took protests, litigation, and some great press, but in the end ROC-NY won over $1 million in stolen tips and wages, promotions for several of the Latino bussers, and a new, transparent promotions policy at Del Posto…For its part Mario Batali’s company responded with admirable willingness to change its practices… In making these changes Batali set the model for the “high road” – which is not about being the perfect employer, since no one can ever be perfect, but about consistently striving to do better.”
Jayaraman doesn’t just describe public victories in Behind the Kitchen Door. She also lets those of us who eat at restaurants understand how we can help. We can stand on the side of love tomorrow, and every day we eat out, by becoming more conscientious in our dining. We can do little things like leave tips in cash (ensuring that the server will receive the tip) or if we’re feeling bold we can speak to the manager after the meal and let them know we care about issues such as fair compensation, sick leave and transparent promotion policies that include people of all races, backgrounds and genders. We can also check out the ROC National Diner’s Guide when choosing a restaurant or we can advocate for higher minimum wages for tipped workers in our area.
You might even order special stickers from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee that note your commitment to fair treatment of restaurant workers. You can leave the stickers on your check when you pay or wear one like a button. And if anyone asks what those stickers are about, you can say, in the words of the random passerby in Greenwich Village “it’s a religious thing.”
Visit Day 27 of the 30 Days of Love Campaign on Standing on the Side of Love to read a message from Rev. Bill Schulz, President & CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) andlearn more about what Unitarian Universalists, and others, are doing in the fight for economic justice.