Over 55% of voting restaurant workers at Lodi in New York City’s Rockefeller Center voted against forming a union last week. Of the 47 ballots cast, 26 voted against unionization. Fifty-two workers were eligible to vote.
Leading up to the vote that took place over Feb. 27 and 28, workers across at Lodi restaurant organized for five months to put together their initial petition announcing their intent to unionize with representation by the Restaurant Workers Union (RWU), a member-funded independent and democratic union. The restaurant belongs to Mattos Hospitality, which is headed by acclaimed chef Ignacio Mattos and includes three other upscale New York dining establishments.
In a March 2 statement, Restaurant Workers Union said, “Mattos Hospitality won this round by systematically violating our rights as workers, compromising the integrity of the election.”
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) case overseeing these alleged violations is still under review. If the election is considered compromised, then the results will be invalidated, and NLRB will order a rerun.
The union ended the statement on a positive note: “Independent of the NLRB investigation and its outcome, we will work to improve our lives as workers and make the restaurant a better place. This is only the beginning. We are confident that we will ultimately be victorious.”
When they published the initial petition to unionize on Jan. 25, two-thirds of the workers, including dishwashers, prep cooks, bartenders, hosts, servers, and line cooks, signed union cards. According to a group of Lodi worker committee representatives, this number reached as high as 72% until the alleged union-busting began.
Lodi would have been the first major win for the Restaurant Workers Union and potentially the first negotiated union contract. Among other items, their demands include higher wages and a cost of living adjustment for inflation, wage transparency with tips for special events, more worker safety initiatives and implements, a just-cause termination clause, improved training and staffing, and a more democratic grievance and disciplinary procedure. The demands come in response to complaints regarding worker safety, quality of life, and inadequate compensation.
When a group of 15 employees first approached Mattos in person with their petition, they say his initial response was neutral. Afterward, workers noted an increasing antagonism of union-busting efforts, which violate federal law. The workers filed an Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) charge to the NLRB on Feb. 16.
Employees report that tensions have been high at the workplace in recent weeks. The company brought in Luis Alvarez of Culture Built, a consultant who workers say was initially intentionally misrepresented to the staff as a “friend of Andrea” (Mattos Hospitality vice president of operations) named Luis Medina. Culture Built is a registered labor relations consultant according to Department of Labor records, with records showing union-busting consultation for truck drivers, communications workers, and insurance agents.
“Alvarez claimed that he was a neutral party to share information to give everyone the legal information, but not everyone was asked to join the meeting, and it was based on the level of outward support,” said Eric, a Lodi server who is using only his first name due to fear of employer retaliation.
Workers added that Alvarez repeatedly said he had no business website and no formal company. An RWU press release also stated that agents were used to “spread misleading information, particularly targeting workers based upon their real or perceived immigration status.”
RWU has formally lodged a ULP complaint of surveillance with the NLRB. In the complaint, workers note a series of other violations, including futility arguments, the use of employee agents, and misinformation around voting and election procedures. According to staff who were present, days after the announcement of intent to unionize, Mattos Hospitality Director of Human Resources Melissa Termyna walked into the kitchen and said, “We can’t afford the union.” Workers also alleged that management has told undocumented workers that they cannot participate in a union—and implicitly, should not vote in favor of unionizing—which is inaccurate under the National Labor Relations Act.
Lodi is part of a wave of restaurants looking to increase the foot traffic and culinary draw of the Rockefeller Center, which recently also debuted Le Rock from Frenchette owners Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, Five Acres from Greg Baxtrom, and Naro from Junghyun and Ellia Park. New York Times Food Critic Pete Wells gave the restaurant a glowing review, describing Lodi as “gratuitously, needlessly excellent” given its surety of prime location foot traffic. Mattos’ other restaurants, including Michelin-starred Estela and the buzzy Altro Paradiso, are well received. That reputation, notes Lodi employees, is another reason they have been frustrated with their working conditions.
“The media coverage has motivated us to unionize more because while we were all applying, interviewing to hire … we were sold the idea of the quality of ingredients and service, and the reputation,” said Molly, a pastry chef at Lodi who is using only her first name for protection. She added that many workers felt lucky to work for the chef known for creative, seasonal dishes. “We’re the ones that make the experience. We want to ensure it meets the promises it sells.”
As for why they initially decided to unionize, the answer among interviewed workers was unambiguous and universal. Molly summed it up: “Why can’t it be better?”
In the past few weeks, RWU has been sharing anonymous letters that express support and share similar grievances from former Mattos Hospitality employees. The grievances range from complaints about last-minute schedule changes to sexist promotional practices, and even “being shamed for [expressing burnout] to the point of tears.”
The restaurant industry at large has one of the lowest union densities nationwide. The 52 employees at Lodi chose to work with independent RWU rather than the larger unions because they “don’t have experience in restaurants of this kind and size … so we would have a contract meant for a service worker that doesn’t necessarily fit our needs,” Eric said.
“Anybody who’s worked in the restaurant industry knows that it’s always been riddled with problems,” said Caro, a bartender at Lodi who is using only their first name for protection. “If I were to work somewhere and saw that a small restaurant successfully unionized, I think it would spark me to do the same.”
Eric concurred, noting the outsized impact this case could have on restaurant workers all over the city.
“We deny any allegations of surveillance or intimidation,” said Mattos in a statement to Prism and The Guardian. “I have always strived to create a positive work culture, where talented and caring people feel supported. As an immigrant, I place particular importance on everyone’s opportunity for advancement. I do my best to make sure that every team member is treated with dignity and respect and every employee has a voice. The choice of whether the team wishes to be represented by a union is up to them, and I am committed to preserving their right to make an informed decision.”