CAMPAIGNS: Employee Relations - Catering staff in union rights bid

Client: Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (New York, NY). PR Team: In-house organizers and communications staff

Client: Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (New York, NY). PR Team: In-house organizers and communications staff

Client: Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (New York, NY). PR Team: In-house organizers and communications staff

Campaign: Restaurant Associates at the Met Opera

Time Frame: March 1999 - present

Budget: dollars 24,500

Restaurant Associates is the catering company employed by the Metropolitan Opera. Ninety-five workers, who aren't Met employees, toil for its food service operations and want improved wages, benefits and working conditions.

The workers enlisted Local 100 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union for help. Their goal is to be assured Restaurant Associates will recognize a union if a majority of workers want one. But Restaurant Associates has resisted unionization, and the groups have been in a standoff since March 1999.


Local 100 needed public support as much as the company's acceptance of the organizing method. The disparity between the lives of the food service employees and those who frequent the Met and its restaurant was seen as the strongest weapon. The loudest noise needed to occur when the contrast between the two was greatest - during high-profile events at the opera house.

The union also wanted to generate support from sympathetic, authoritative groups, including government officials, clergy and other union members.

As most of the employees concerned are Latino, it was important to get first-person stories to the English-language media.

Organizers thought the Met should be responsible for workers, even though the opera didn't directly employ them. Embarrassing the opera house and its board members was considered a good strategy.


On the opening night of the Met's 1999 season, well-heeled opera lovers descended on Lincoln Center plaza. Representatives from more than 20 unions greeted the crowd, singing chants against the Met and comparing workers' wages to opera ticket prices. Some demonstrators dressed in black tie.

Thirty-one people were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Organizers pursued Met board members by leafleting their workplaces and high-profile events such as annual meetings. The opera filed a lawsuit and obtained an injunction against those union activities in May. Organizers were ordered not to defame or bring the opera's name into the dispute.

The court action forced the union to rely on the tactics of leafleting and targeting Restaurant Associates, but it did not damage the PR effort.

The fight carries on today as demonstrations continue featuring large groups of sympathetic clergy from a range of religious groups throughout New York City. To make sure workers' messages are heard directly, translators are available for interviews with Spanish-speaking workers.

Workers and supporters gathered again on September 25, 2000 for the Met's season-opening performance. Nine elected officials from New York joined the demonstration, adding authority to the effort.

The demonstrators capitalized on the injunction by distributing leaflets stating its terms and wearing red gags to illustrate their inability to speak about the opera house.


Coverage has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Daily News, Newsday and on a number of local New York television stations. National coverage includes AP, Reuters, Business Week and National Public Radio.

Local 100 appealed the Met's injunction, but there is no ruling yet.

The dispute continues, but Restaurant Associates settled 25 charges of intimidation and unfair dismissal levied against it by the National Labor Relations Board. Leafleting has occurred throughout January 2001.


A panel of elected officials, clergy and community leaders will convene a discussion, titled 'Working in Wealth: Living in Poverty,' at the Church of St Paul the Apostle in February. A panel testimony from the workers will be heard and a report based on the findings will be published.

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