Bendan Maslauskas Dunn reports on new organizing conditions and how the SFU plans to become stronger than ever.

This article originally appeared in the Indypendent

As the coronavirus pandemic spread and New York City became the global epicenter of the virus, the restaurant industry was jolted with shutdowns, closures, furloughs and mass layoffs. Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a destination for tourists who want to experience the musical allure of Broadway while eating classic diner food presented by singing servers, was not immune from this. On March 17, the diner closed its doors and all of Ellen’s over 200 employees were furloughed.

Bracing for the worst, workers approached Ellen’s management, asking that they set up a relief fund to financially help those restaurant workers at the iconic diner most in need. But management refused to help. Not once, but twice. They first refused to provide any relief, despite the fact that management at other restaurants have done so, and then refused to donate any money to a fund set up by the workers. They offered little explanation for their decision, simply saying, “The diner can’t get involved.”

In other restaurants and under different circumstances, the workers would be left out to fend for themselves. At Ellen’s Stardust Diner, things are different. In 2016, workers came together and formed a union with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and called it Stardust Family United (union members are affectionately known as Wobblies or Stardusters). They created a model for a militant, worker-led solidarity union, not just for the industry, but for the rest of the nation. In short, solidarity unionism is when workers themselves take collective direct action at work and build power from the bottom up, rather than relying on labor bureaucrats, union reps, attorneys or a grievance procedure. Like the old Wobbly saying goes, “we are all leaders!” It’s a slogan Stardusters live by. 

In an interview with Zach Snyder, an Ellen’s employee and union member who also works in the theater industry, he said the messages from management were clear. “The restaurant doesn’t have our backs. The union has our backs.” Snyder and his coworkers knew the only people that were going to assist the workers were the workers themselves. To address the incompetence and intransigence of management and to respond quickly during this pandemic, union members held an online meeting where they decided to form an employee relief fund. They voted to initially donate $2,000 of their own dues money to the fund, struck a committee to administer it, and established a GoFundMe page to collect donations. 

Snyder, who has worked just about everywhere in the restaurant industry, “from McDonalds to Burger King, to high end catering and fine dining,” joined the union shortly after he started working at Ellen’s. “What set me on fire was that there was one day where I was supposed to have a tip-out from training because I helped so much with a party there. But when I went to get the money, it wasn’t there. Coworkers said, ‘we put it in an envelope and gave it to management like we normally do.’ It was a case of wage theft! Immediately I said, ‘no, I’m not doing this’ and I wanted to join the union.”

Snyder took out a Red Card and joined the union. Since that day he has become deeply involved with the IWW: attending union meetings, serving as a union officer, organizing and participating in singing pickets, staging collective actions in the diner, and even participating in sit-ins over another wage theft issue. Organizing the relief fund was only a logical next step for Snyder and his coworkers and it couldn’t come any sooner.

While work was already precarious for many at Ellen’s before the spread of COVID-19, it has been amplified by the pandemic, coupled with an economy teetering on the edge. While some of the workers are currently receiving unemployment, many do not qualify for the assistance needed to make ends meet.

“This fund is for any coworkers who are unable to get unemployment benefits, or assistance needed to get by, whether they are in the union or not,” Snyder implored. “People have been working here for years and don’t qualify for unemployment.” The reasons for this vary, ranging from government bureaucratic mistakes to the fact that many of the servers at Ellen’s would work from time to time on Broadway or in the theater industry. The situation that many who work in the kitchen face is even worse. One of Snyder’s coworkers, who requested to remain anonymous,  put it this way:

“We are without family [and] without money. We come to this country to work alone for three or four  years. Unfortunately, we are trying to survive with our last week that we worked. We will not be able to pay [rent] for the month of May, we do not know what to do, the consulate of our country is not working, our situation is really sad and discouraging. We hope, we hope, and we ask God that all this happens soon… but in these difficult times for us, those of us who are not eligible to obtain any support from the government, we can only appeal to the good heart of the people who can lend us a hand.”

And that is precisely what Wobblies in Stardust Family United intend to do. While the bosses were noticeably absent in offering any assistance, the union came to the rescue by offering mutual aid and solidarity, first in the form of union dues donated to the relief fund, and now from donations given by others. Their plan is to raise $25,000.

The fact that the funds will be available to everyone, even for their coworkers not in the union, should serve as an example which others should follow. The hope is some of these workers will see that during the largest pandemic in over 100 years it was the union, not the bosses, that was there for them. People join unions for multiple reasons and this material support and empathy might be the reason for some of Snyder’s coworkers to take out their own Red Cards and join the IWW.

When asked how else Stardust Family United is organizing during the pandemic, Zach Snyder said that participation in union meetings has gone up and Wobblies are preparing for an uncertain future, though still poised for action if the need arises. “We’re thinking about the future of the union. Right now, our mentality with the union and restaurant is that no news is good news but one thing we were a little scared about was a letter we received when we were furloughed where management might try and pinpoint union leaders for firing.” 

Snyder briefly paused on the phone but picked up his pace again. “But we’ll have the means to organize. We don’t think they will do that. There would be no reason to fire or furlough any of us. If they do decide that, they would face legal and collective action.” 

Recent history looms large over management at Ellen’s so they may not make the foolish decision to target union activists. When the company launched a union busting campaign in 2016, firing thirty-one workers in the process, the workers fought back with a vengeance. The replacement workers, Zach Snyder included, joined the IWW, swelling the ranks of the union, and a successful escalation campaign resulted in all workers getting reinstated with nearly $500,000 total in back pay

When asked what kept him and his coworkers motivated to take collective action at work, Snyder replied, “I mean there was a lot of anger and agitation and that is what drives every action.” Anger over their exploitation, but an unyielding love for their fellow workers, whether they are in a union or not. That love, in part, is expressed through the relief fund and Stardusters are hoping you will express that love with them too.

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn is an IWW member and organizer in Utica, NY. His work has been published by The Industrial Worker, Works in Progress, Monthly Review, Le Monde Diplomatique and other publications.

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