The parallels between the story of Passover and a modern-day struggle for worker rights resonated loud and clear at a picket line outside a glatt kosher restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan last week.
Immigrant workers and representatives from several local unions and Jewish labor groups waved union posters, ate matzo, drank grape juice and sang traditional Passover tunes outside the Box Tree restaurant at an April 9 demonstration. Alleging unfair labor practices, some 70 mostly black and Hispanic demonstrators in canary-yellow rain slickers called for a boycott at the event, which at times resembled a model Seder more than a picket line. Many traded shouts of “Si se puede!” — the Cesar Chavez-inspired mantra meaning “Yes we can!” — and “Dayenu,” the Passover Seder refrain loosely translated as “Enough.”
Their grievance: Moshe Lax, the new owner of the high-end French steakhouse, allegedly refused to rehire unionized laborers who had been working there for more than a decade under the previous ownership. They claim Lax used subterfuge to rid himself of the unionized workers by insisting when he bought the Box Tree last spring that he would not reopen the restaurant, and then did so anyway. Lax denied any wrongdoing and in turn filed a complaint claiming the ongoing protests are illegal.
“The story of Passover is rich with imagery and meaning for Jews and for all of us involved in organized labor,” Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, told the crowd. Feinberg and representatives of the Jewish Labor Committee and the Workmen’s Circle read from a special Haggada created by the Jewish Labor Committee and led the rally in classic Seder songs such as “Once We Were Slaves,” as well as a twist on a famous tune, “Let My People Work.”
The union representing the former workers, Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in February claiming the new owner “unlawfully refused to consider” the union members for employment. But the union acknowledged that it had a far greater chance of winning back the workers’ jobs through social pressure than through legal means.
So far the protesters have reportedly been able to convince some important customers to cancel their dinner reservations. The New York Post’s Page Six gossip column noted April 5 that Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and prominent political consultant Hank Scheinkopf decided not to cross the picket line to attend a scheduled dinner that night with fellow members of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue Men’s Club.
But the restaurant is fighting back. Lax filed a complaint April 10 with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the union violated labor law by picketing on more than 30 occasions without filing a representation petition to hold a labor election. “It would be extortion” if the union picketed endlessly, Lax’s lawyer, Richard Wilsker, told the Forward.
Wilsker said that his client is not required to comply with the union contract struck with the previous proprietor. He claimed that all former workers were notified in advance to submit employment applications and that only three did so. One did not show up for an interview, a second told Wilsker that he was not interested in the job and a third was put on a preferential recall list, Wilsker said.
The union disputed Wilsker’s claims.
“We know nine workers applied and want to go back to work and aren’t being taken back,” said a spokeswoman for Local 100, Amanda Ream. She also called the restaurant’s complaint with the NLRB “just another trick union-busting lawyers use.”
“They know we’re fighting to get union workers’ jobs back,” she said. “Then they as a company would ask for union elections as a way to confuse the issue.”
The former workers — nine in all, mostly from Mexico — have been waving placards in the biting weather twice each week since December, when Lax reopened the establishment.
Avram Lyon, the Jewish Labor Committee’s executive director, told the highly charged audience last week that although Lax’s action might be legal, it “is not moral and violates the spirit and tradition of Jewish law.”
Other Jewish groups represented at the rally were Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, United Hebrew Trades and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.
One picketer, Santos Felix Velazquez, had been working at the Box Tree since 1990, when it was a non-kosher, highly exclusive establishment owned by Bulgarian millionaire Augustin Paege. Velazquez went on strike for four years with other workers at the restaurant until they won a union contract in 1998. Five years later, Velazquez and friends are back on the street again.
“People ask us how long we’ll fight for this one,” Felix told fellow protesters. “As long as it takes.”