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Young Workers United Wins $4.5 Million
Rafa Gutierrez and over 180 other Cheesecake Factory restaurant workers know what it’s like to savor the sweet taste of justice. Through organizing their coworkers, taking legal action, and teaming up with community organization Young Workers United (YWU), former and current Cheesecake Factory workers across the state have won a $4.5 million settlement and seen concrete improvements at their work.
Rafa Gutierrez and over 180 other Cheesecake Factory restaurant workers know what it’s like to savor the sweet taste of justice. Through organizing their coworkers, taking legal action, and teaming up with community organization Young Workers United (YWU), former and current Cheesecake Factory workers across the state have won a $4.5 million settlement and seen concrete improvements at
From 2001 to 2004, the Cheesecake Factory management denied workers their legal right to a break after six hours of work in the busiest and most profitable restaurant in San Francisco. Workers were compelled to work while hungry and tired. Former server and YWU member Patty Senecal recalls: “I was on my feet for eight hours a day! I couldn’t eat or sit down. I would be running from table to table, sneaking candy in the bathroom.” After research into labor law, Marilyn and others started organizing their coworkers to file claims with the Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement, the state agency in charge of enforcing labor law. Claims ranged from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. At the same time a lawsuit was filed in Southern California.
The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) watched the number of claims rise to over 80. Cheesecake Factory workers waited more than a year for a response. Towards the end of that year, YWU organizers met Marilyn during their frequent restaurant outreach. Marilyn laughs when she recalls the meeting. “The organizers asked how conditions were at the Cheesecake. I told them things are horrible! At that point we had been waiting on the DLSE for a year.”
Young Workers United is a community and workers’ center dedicated to improving conditions for service sector workers. YWU and former and current Cheesecake workers started meeting regularly as an organizing committee. After analyzing the conditions at work, the organizing committee came up with a list of demands including back pay, respect, fairer systems for schedules and promotions, and no retaliation for organizing activities. They then planned a campaign for worker organizing and community solidarity to pressure Cheesecake.
Workers gave each other flyers at work and defended each other when called in for discipline. Workers and allies formed delegations to confront the management. The community was highly supportive of workers and participated in a call-in to the company as well as actions of upwards of 80 people. San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly and former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez spoke at the rallies. Four other Supervisors signed an Appeal for Justice to the corporation. YWU also went into the restaurant and released balloons with “justice” and “breaks” written on them. Meanwhile, other YWUers were handing out flyers and informing customers of the labor violations.
As YWU’s actions escalated through 2004 and 2005, Cheesecake Factory had to change their breaks system and began paying servers higher wages instead of making the workers on break pay their substitute $5 to take their table. In the kitchen, workers saw huge improvements through their collective action.
Management was forced to stop changing timecards and charging workers for food. When management would randomly harass, fire, or deny someone unemployment benefits, YWU was able to immediately respond with action on the inside.
In December, Governor Schwarzenegger changed break law, letting corporations with pending lawsuits off the hook. Cheesecake settled despite the new law because of worker and community pressure. Cheesecake Factory claimants and other restaurant workers held a press conference Thursday, September 1 to announce the successful settlement of the Cheesecake lawsuit and to discuss current struggles. Sonia Cano, a YWU member and restaurant worker, told the crowd, “This is not an isolated incident. Violations are standard in the restaurant industry and we have to fight as workers and the community to get our rights.”
Contact Young Workers United at 415-621-4155 or workingyouth [at] hotmail.com