A victory at Outback Steakhouse

By Rebecca Lewis

Weekly pickets outside the North Haven restaurant got management's attention (Rebecca Lewis | SW)Weekly pickets outside the North Haven restaurant got management's attention (Rebecca Lewis | SW)

NORTH HAVEN, Ct.--Workers at Outback Steakhouse stood up against a corporate giant and won.

Members of the immigrant and workers' rights organization Unidad Latina en Acción, former Outback Steakhouse workers and their supporters gathered May 9 to celebrate victory in their four-month struggle to end sexual harassment at the North Haven restaurant.

At first, when Juliette Zuluaga, Valeria Gomez and José Alberto Serafin told their superiors that a manager was sexually harassing them, their complaints fell on deaf ears. The workers who protested the conditions--in which their manager cornered them in a walk-in freezer, touched them and asked them for dates--were either fired or pressured into quitting their jobs.

But when they brought their case to Unidad Latina en Acción, the group sprang into action with a campaign of weekly pickets in front of Outback Steakhouse. The pickets, timed to coincide with the Friday evening dinner rush, came up against stiff opposition from Outback and North Haven police.

Protesters were intimidated and harassed, and the police ticketed one demonstrator; several others were required to give their names and addresses. But protesters refused to break ranks, returning every week to denounce the restaurant's shameful record. The demonstrators chanted, sang and handed out leaflets denouncing sexual harassment, causing many potential customers to leave.

After repeated attempts to intimidate protesters into giving up, Outback sent several top officials, including its vice president of diversity and equal opportunity, to negotiate with Unidad and the workers.

"We had suffered in silence for so long," said John Harvey, a former Outback employee and Unidad Latina en Acción member. "I never thought I would get to tell a corporate vice president about all the abuse that went on in the kitchens. But we put the pressure on, and they had no choice but to listen to us."

Outback's lawyers claimed, however, that they couldn't immediately meet the demands being put forward. So the pickets continued, demanding that Outback fire the manager guilty of harassing the kitchen staff, settle favorably with the three workers and review its sexual harassment policy.

Unidad also demanded an apology from Outback for accusing protesters of trespassing and using police to intimidate them. After four months of continued pressure, and feeling the pinch of reduced business on Friday nights Outback caved, settling with the workers and firing the manager responsible for much of the abuse.

Said Zuluaga, "This is a victory for us, but also for all restaurant workers everywhere who are sick and tired of putting up with discrimination and abuse." In addition, the company's sexual harassment policy has been translated into Spanish, making it accessible to more workers.

Paul Garlinghouse, a member of the National Lawyer's Guild, commented on the victory, "The first day you came out here, they called the cops, they arrested someone, and you guys came back...I think you sent a message that there's something new going on here in this community."

The corporation also agreed to issue a private, rather than a public apology to all of the protesters who experienced police harassment, with the stipulation that the group agree never to return to Outback's North Haven location. But Unidad Latina en Acción member Megan Fountain responded, "They can forget their private apology. If we ever hear about another incident of sexual harassment here, we'll be back!"