Putting a stop to wage theft

F.W. Barney reports on a Portland labor battle in a report written for WeAreOregon.org.

ON JANUARY 18, a group of workers from Yaw's Top Notch restaurant in Portland, Ore., took a stand. Leading the delegation into the restaurant, the 10 workers were accompanied by 30 community members from We Are Oregon and the Industrial Workers of the World.

To the shock of bosses and customers (and the smiles of kitchen staff), one worker publicly read a letter addressed to the owners and management demanding over $1,200 in back wages that Yaw's has refused to pay. Less than a week later, with signed checks in hand, these same 10 individuals celebrated victory won through solidarity.

Yaw's Top Notch Restaurant was an East Portland staple for over 50 years. Three decades after it closed its doors, Yaw's is now back and wants you to believe that it's still the landmark it once was; a place where you can experience what it was like in the "good old days" when customers and employees were treated like members of the family.

The new Yaw's claims to be "looking for people who want more than just a job"--something that "goes beyond just making money." But Yaw's management has failed. To go "beyond just making money," you must first be making money. Now, Yaw's employees have demanded what was rightfully theirs, and they weren't going to take no for an answer.

The workers were supported by members of Food and Retail Workers United (FRWU), an IWW coalition of its food, retail and distribution workers committed to workplace democracy and global solidarity. They received additional support from We Are Oregon, a project of Service Employees International Union Locals 49 and 503, which organizes against wage theft in the Portland metro area.

The Yaw's workers, who took the lead in coordinating the campaign, made a commitment to each other to not give up until all 10 workers' demands were met. Each worker involved demanded a different amount owed to them due to unpaid but mandatory meetings, trainings and "soft opening" shifts. Yaw's also charged some workers uniform laundry fees, which resulted in getting less than the required minimum wage.

Standing together, the workers made their demand collectively because of Yaw's repeated refusal to pay them individually. "This is the first step," said one worker, "Let's make sure what has happened to us doesn't happen to anyone else."

On January 18, the worker-led delegation of community members filed into the restaurant and requested to speak to the owner. Management's reaction? Workers were condescended to, the owner refused to come out of his office, and the workers were told they had to leave and weren't welcome.

The pictures of smiling employees that line the walls fail to hide the truth: If Yaw's is a family, it would seem that support only goes one way, and any attempt to be heard is met with passive aggressive animosity. The talk of community and values means nothing if, behind close doors, theft, abuse and mismanagement are business as usual.

On the triumphant walk after the action, the sense of empowerment was evident as workers openly shared stories of being fired when they protested unfair conditions or refused to crumble in the face of the owner's chaotic, abusive behavior. Cheers abounded as workers testified about their accomplishment and vowed to return if their demands were not met by Thursday, January 24. "We didn't let them scare us!" said Sabrina, one of the workers.

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THEY DIDN'T have to wait long--the owners and management immediately attempted damage control.

Management began contacting workers individually in order to avoid paying all those involved. But solidarity won out, and workers held firm to their "all or nothing" agreement.

By midweek, it looked like Yaw's had caved, as the group was told that they could come pick up their checks on Thursday. However, as they insisted on coming together, they would have to be there before the restaurant opened. Management claimed the group was "a mob" and "scary." Was it this group of parents and community members who were threatening--or was it the truth that the Yaw's management was hiding from?

Sitting around the table of a nearby diner, the group discussed how this meeting with management might play out. If management was going to change something or leave anyone out, the workers weren't going to stand for it. "We're in this together all the way!" said a member of the organizing team as someone brought out the wage theft fliers that were to be passed out to the community if all didn't go as promised.

As the Yaw's workers walked toward their former place of employment, the mood was tense. But moments later--smiles and triumphant cheers! As the workers filed out of the restaurant and gathered to take a photo with what they had earned, suddenly, there were shouts and threats. "No pictures!" yelled the general manager who had overseen the settlement. As he threatened to call the police for trespassing if they didn't leave immediately, the workers happily walked away, checks triumphantly raised in the air. They had won. Yaw's had no power over their lives anymore.

"There are still people working there who have been stolen from," observed one of the workers, "Younger folks have kids...Older folks are scared they won't find another job. They take advantage of this." Continuing on, another worker shared how they felt when their former co-workers saw the delegation enter the restaurant: "It was scary at first, but I saw the smiles on the faces of other workers...I hope we gave them courage to fight, too."

According to the Yaw's website, they "want you to feel that Yaw's is really your restaurant. Our goal is to treat you like the boss, and do everything we can to make sure that you leave your restaurant happier than when you arrived."

For the first time, Yaw's employees have made this true. Acting together as one, they have shown that they will not stand for being stolen from. But it wasn't just about the money, "Yaw's didn't show respect to anybody!" said one organizer. "You busted your butts and were never showed any appreciation!"

Something significant has happened in the lives of these people, and they certainly left Yaw's happier than when they arrived. Workers' solidarity had won the day, but the fight is never over. As one worker said, "I have a very strong feeling that this is just the beginning."

Portland-area residents who are experiencing wage theft or want to get involved in the fight against wage theft and for respect can call 503-345-7831, email info@weareoregon.org or visit PortlandIWW.org.

First published at WeAreOregon.org.