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Case against Lodi, one of New York’s best restaurants, could reduce barriers to unions

Case against Lodi, one of New York’s best restaurants, could reduce barriers to unions

The National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint against the New York restaurant group led by celebrity chef Ignacio Mattos, claiming it engaged in illegal practices designed to dissuade workers from forming a union in Lodi, in Rockefeller Center.

The 24 allegations, some of which involve Mr. Mattos himself, include monitoring workers’ communications, telling employees that the restaurant would close if a union was formed and warning undocumented workers that their immigration status would be affected if they unionized.

The alleged practices constitute fairly common anti-union tactics. What is distinctive about this case, however, is the new tool the NLRB has at its disposal: its recent decision that lowers the bar for a union to be recognized.

The decision, known as the Cemex decision for the building materials company against which it was first used last August, allows the NLRB to order a company to recognize and negotiate with a union – even when workers voted against a union, as they narrowly did last year in Lodi – if the board’s attorney general can prove to an administrative law judge that management used illegal anti-union methods that affected the outcome of the election.

In April, the regional director of the council’s Manhattan office, John Doyle, filed a lawsuit seeking an order from Cemex. Administrative judges have imposed Cemex orders on three businesses, but this is the first case involving a restaurant. If a judge finds that Mattos Hospitality acted illegally, the company would have to negotiate with workers at Lodi, which would become one of the few independent restaurants in New York to be unionized.

The bargaining unit would be small, at least initially — about 50 workers at Lodi, out of 228 employees at Mattos Hospitality’s three restaurants. And a significant percentage of unions never win a contract, said Jeffrey Hirsch, a University of North Carolina professor who specializes in labor and employment law.

But the precedent of a Cemex order against a restaurant, he said, could inspire other restaurant workers to unionize. “With Cemex, you go straight to negotiation, and that’s a big change,” Mr. Hirsch said.

The NLRB said several new unions have sought rulings from Cemex since the August decision, and its general counsel is currently seeking orders from Cemex in a dozen cases nationwide.

Mattos Hospitality said it could not comment on the allegations while the case was ongoing. But he pointed to a statement released before the union vote that said: “We do our best to ensure that every team member is treated with dignity and respect, and that every employee has a voice.” »

“The choice of whether the team wishes to be represented by a union is always theirs, and we are committed to preserving their right to make an informed decision. Lodi’s team voted against the union in a free and fair election administered by the NLRB” (the vote was 25-21 against the union.)

Innovative chef from Uruguay, Mr. Mattos first made his mark in 2013 when he opened Estela, where guests included the Obamas. He has been regularly featured in the media, and in April he was named one of 100 most culturally influential people in the country by Cultured Magazine.

Lodi, an Italian cafe, was one of the first restaurants to open as part of the recent high-profile redesign of Rockefeller Center Plaza. (The federal case against Lodi does not include Estela or Mr. Mattos’ third restaurant, Another Paradise.)

Localized organizing drives have made headlines, as workers at the outposts of big companies like Starbucks And Amazon have won long-standing battles. Yet only 3.6 percent of U.S. restaurant workers are unionized, according to one study. 2023 Report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 10 percent of all workers. Part of the reason is that the restaurant industry has high turnover and the number of workers in independent restaurants is often too small for large unions to handle.

Lodi workers are affiliated with Catering Workers Union — Sindicato de Trabajadores de Restaurantes, Local 1, a small group founded in 2020, rather than working with a larger union. This may be suitable for a small restaurant, said Tareq Saghie, New York City organizer for Restaurant Opportunities Center Unitedan advocacy and education group for hospitality workers because it puts workers in more direct communication with management and allows for the creation of a union tailored to the type of restaurant.

But these workers have neither the experience nor the resources of a larger union like Unite here, Local 100which represents several well-established restaurants in New York, including the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Shun Lee Palace, he said. Lodi workers said they were helping others at at least four New York restaurants form unions.

Typically, when workers inform an employer that they are organizing a union, management can either recognize the union or call for an election.

In Lodi, the atmosphere was relatively friendly before workers informed management of their efforts in January 2023, said Rose Thomas, a baker there from June 2022 to June 2023. “We didn’t have any managers yelling or who was verbally abusive or whatever. these lines. Employees said they were seeking better and fairer pay, benefits like health insurance and safer working conditions.

But once management called for union elections, the environment quickly turned hostile, Ms. Thomas said. According to the NLRB complaint – supported by dozens of recordings, screenshots and affidavits from workers – managers began supervising workers more closely, referencing private text messages between workers and giving employees the feeling that they were under surveillance.

The complaint says management “appealed to racial bias” to discourage employees from joining the union. In affidavits submitted to the board, workers said the restaurant hired an anti-union consultant, who identified himself under a false name. The consultant held meetings with Latino employees – recordings of which were heard by the New York Times – in which he warned them not to trust their English-speaking colleagues who had joined the union effort.

In interviews, Latino workers said Mr. Mattos invoked his identity as a Spanish-speaking immigrant. Sometime after the union’s announcement, a worker said in a sworn statement to the board that Mr. Mattos rushed up to him, pointed at him and said, “Eso no se hace.” (“We don’t do that.”).

Eric Schmidt, a server at Lodi, played a leading role in organizing the union and works a second job as a restaurant server. In a February 2023 text message seen by The Times, Mr. Mattos told that other employer that Mr. Schmidt had betrayed him by helping the union’s efforts. The employer, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an interview that she felt Mr. Mattos was warning her against working with Mr. Schmidt. (She kept Mr. Schmidt anyway.)

The union says three-quarters of Lodi workers signed cards saying they wanted the group to represent them. But employees voted against the union in February 2023, and that month, workers began filing unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

An administrative judge plans to hear the case starting June 24, and it could be months before the judge makes a decision. If the judge issues Cemex an order, Mattos Hospitality could appeal the decision to the full labor board and delay negotiations, said Mr. Hirsch, the law professor.

A Cemex order “lowers the barriers” to a successful union, he said. “It doesn’t diminish them all.”

Christina Morales contributed reporting.

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