Earlier this week, chants of "One, two, three, four, don’t go through that restaurant door! Five, six, seven, eight, until they don’t discriminate!" greeted diners as they entered The Capital Grille on Manhattan's 42nd Street. With drums and signs, workers rallied in front of the restaurant asking for better working conditions.
"The problem here is that working conditions are very uncomfortable," Ignacio Villegas, who has been working for seven years at the pantry section, told us. "There is a lot of abuse and discrimination."
The protest was organized by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), a nonprofit labor advocacy group, as part of its ongoing "Dignity at Darden" campaign against The Capital Grille’s parent company, the Darden Restaurant Group.
Since January 2012, workers from the restaurant chain across the country have been organizing to change conditions in their workplace, alleging racial discrimination against Latinos and blacks, wage theft, exploitative conditions, and closed paths to promotions. They filed a federal lawsuit against Darden but due to differences in wage laws between states, the case has been separated and sent back to each city.
"Right now, all we want is for the employers at Capital Grille to sit down with their workers and reach an agreement," ROC-NY member Diego Díaz said.
With more than 2,000 restaurants and 180,000 employees in the United States and Canada, Darden is the world’s largest full-service restaurant group, managing popular chains like Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and The Capital Grille. Rich Jeffers, a spokesman for the group, said the employees’ claims are baseless. "This is nothing more than a long campaign of harassment against our company," he told The Daily Meal. "We value our employees and our culture is based on values of respect, care, integrity and commitment to diversity."
John Cronan, one of the protest’s organizers, said that despite the workers’ multiple demonstrations and legal efforts, Darden has been unresponsive. However, in the past year, employees have seen some encouraging results. "Now, with the movement, they’ve started giving us raises," pantry worker Villegas told us. "But it’s still ridiculous, I’m the one who got the highest raise and it was only $0.45."
"They’re only interested in making money and not in the worker," Díaz added. "Sometimes they think because the workers earn only $5 an hour they don’t mean anything. We want to show them that, yes, we might earn $5 an hour but if we’re united we can accomplish more."
But in order to reach an arrangement, the workers might have to drop the legal actions and enter Darden’s dispute resolution process, which demands that workers speak directly to their supervisor to try to solve an issue. If this doesn’t work, they would have to ask for a peer review. If this still doesn’t work out, they would then go to mediation and later, to arbitration. "Over 90 percent of the disputes are resolved at the open door stage," Darden’s representative said.
"We’re still figuring out the next step," ROC-NY organizer John Cronan said.
The rally in Midtown was cut short when one of the protesters, a new member of ROC-NY, had a seizure. The protesters scrambled to help the man and comfort him until the paramedics came and took him away, and Cronan asked everyone to put their drums and signs away. "I think it might be in bad taste to continue today," he said.