No justice, no pasta!

January 17, 2011

Seattle activists are taking action against wage-stealing bosses, says Jorge Torres.

ALL IT took was 15 picketers, five chants and 30 minutes to make Bella Napoli Italian Restaurant owner, Ciro D'onofrio, turn off the lights, lock the doors and go home--three hours ahead of schedule on a January 14.

The Seattle Solidarity Network has been employing diverse tactics in their latest fight to win back 60 hours of unpaid wages for Becky Davis.

Becky started working for D'onofrio temporarily in September 2010 while her job at a bowling alley was put on hold when the building was being remodeled. But problems at Bella Napoli began to mount immediately.

D'onofrio was abusive and habitually yelled at her and her coworkers, often in front of customers. Like most working people, Becky couldn't choose her preferred employer. She hated working there, but needed the money, so she stayed. When asked when D'onofrio would pay her, he told her that he liked to pay everybody at the end of the month.

One month and one week came and went without pay. Becky confronted D'onofrio about her paycheck and was accused of stealing money and a bottle of wine. Robbed of $487, she went to the Seattle Solidarity Network.

Picketers confront a wage-stealing employer at Bella Napoli restaurant in Seattle
Picketers confront a wage-stealing employer at Bella Napoli restaurant in Seattle (Jorge Torres | SW)

Seattle Solidarity Network (known as SeaSol) is an all-volunteer network of working people who defend each other against abuses by bosses and landlords through collective direct action and mutual support.

Formed a little over three years ago, the group has taken on fights small and large around issues such as unpaid wages, stolen tips, unfair rent increases and unreturned deposits. Being neither an official union nor a social service, the only condition for receiving support from SeaSol is that you in turn support others with their own disputes.

It's partly this model, and simple word of mouth, that has increased SeaSol's popularity and allowed its members to win 17 of the past 20 fights they have taken up. SeaSol-inspired solidarity networks are sprouting up across the country in Boston; Portland, Ore.; Pensacola, Fla.; New York; Providence, R.I.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Glasgow, Scotland.

AFTER MEETING with SeaSol, Becky and the group decided to give D'onofrio one chance to pay up. They made calls to SeaSol supporters and rounded up 32 people who packed out the restaurant to support Becky as she handed him a letter informing him that he had 14 days to pay her or actions would escalate.

Over the past two-and-a-half months, a series of actions have been called against Bella Napoli--from weekend flyering and pickets outside the restaurant averaging 30 people; to postering runs of the surrounding neighborhood asking for a boycott of Bella Napoli; to holiday cards sent to neighbors in his condo informing them that there is a thieving restaurant owner in their midst.

SeaSol's attempts to impact D'onofrio's business and reputation have been met with physical retaliation and intimidation (see the "Boss Tantrum" video online). D'onofrio has poured steaming hot water on picketers, spit on others, flicked a lit cigarette at the chest of another, hit one SeaSoler's head between the door and door-jam of the restaurant, thrown the sharp edge of a picket sign at the head of a picketer, kicked a picketer's cup of coffee into the street and kicked another picketer in the leg.

And yet the picket line has only gotten bigger, with 50 people coming out on the night of D'onofrio's pre-Christmas dinner event. Only one dinner group came in to eat that night.

As Ciro D'onofrio sat dejectedly in his empty restaurant, his closed sign up and the door locked, watching the spirited picketers get honks of support from passing cars, he spent the following 10 minutes contemplating his next move.

Chants of "Work for Ciro, get paid zero!" and "No justice, no pasta! We're gonna make it cost ya!" rang out on the street.

He and his lawyer had received a "cease and desist" letter in the mail from SeaSol earlier in the day, citing his previous acts of physical assault, harassment and intimidation. With the pouring rain coming down, the chant, "It's cold, but we're bold, and you're the one that's gonna fold!" must have been the tipping point that sent him packing.

In Becky's words:

The day we delivered my demand letter was one of the happiest days of my life, I felt so supported and strong. Ciro is breaking down week by week. Already, he has paid Labor and Industries a portion of my wages, although he still refuses to pay the entire amount.

His business dwindles, while our numbers and dedication grow. With our strength and persistence, we'll continue to show bosses like Ciro that they can't get away with abusing their workers and show others that there is power in numbers and support out there if you have a similar situation. Solidarity forever!

Crooked landlords and cheating bosses beware. We can take you down with a little solidarity.

Becky Davis and Ryan Worswick contributed to this article.

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