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Former Windows On The World Employees Become Advocates For Fair Treatment Of Service Workers

Colors Roc Ny

First Posted: 09/09/11 04:59 PM ET Updated: 11/09/11 05:12 AM ET

On Sept. 8, 2001, Sekou Siby was playing soccer on a field in Queens with several of his co-workers. At that time, Siby was a line cook and chef who spoke four languages. Like everyone else in the game, he worked at Windows on the World -- an elite eatery atop the north tower of the World Trade Center, and the most profitable restaurant in America.

Among the players were Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Ecuadorians and Brazilians -- a highly international group, but one typical of the Windows staff, which included immigrants from every corner of the globe. By all accounts, it didn't matter that people hailed from dozens of different countries. The Windows workers formed a tight-knit community.

"It was the ideal," recalled Siby, himself an immigrant from the Ivory Coast. "So many different groups. We really got along."

Three days later, nearly everyone who'd been in that soccer game was dead -- victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and killed 2,977 people in New York, Virgina and Pennsylvania.

Siby, who would have been at Windows that morning had he not recently agreed to swap shifts with a co-worker, was stunned.

"It was five years before I was able to play soccer again," he said.

People who worked at Windows on the World speak about it today in the language of family. The workers prayed together in the building's stairwells, and shared meals on religious holidays in the Windows cafeteria.

But the destruction of Windows, and the tragic deaths of 73 of its employees, did not mark the end of that community. Siby and many of his co-workers would eventually become involved in a new restaurant, one that paid tribute to the people who died on 9/11 and that advanced the principles of fair treatment for service workers.

And even in the aftermath of the attacks, as New Yorkers and Americans struggled to understand what they had just experienced, the seeds were being planted for a new group -- the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York -- which would become a voice for powerless immigrants and restaurant workers across the country.

'TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT'

For Fekkak Mamdouh, 9/11 made one thing clear: a lot of people in New York's restaurant industry needed help.

Mamdouh, a Moroccan immigrant who held degrees in physics and chemistry, had been at Windows on the World since 1996, working as a waiter and union shop steward. He spent much of the week of Sept. 11 in various hospitals and the city morgue, trying to account for his missing co-workers.

When he wasn't searching for the lost Windows employees -- the 73 people he today calls his "brothers and sisters" -- Mamdouh was also helping to process emergency casework for immigrant members of his collective, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union.

As he did so, he began to understand that restaurant workers and their families were some of the most vulnerable people in the city -- particularly if they were undocumented immigrants.

"Ninety-nine percent of people that work in restaurants don't have anybody to go to," Mamdouh recently told The Huffington Post. "People, when they get mad in restaurants, they just go next door or look for another job. And people are used to this. Like, this is the restaurant business and this is how it goes. Take it or leave it."

Many of the people whose cases Mamdouh handled were struggling with problems -- financial instability, a lack of health care, few or no workplace rights -- that predated 9/11, and that couldn't be resolved in a few hours at an emergency center.

Mamdouh was realizing they had no safety net, and few opportunities to find one, due to the transitory nature of the restaurant industry. And that industry, like many other components of the city's economy, was having troubles of its own during the fall of 2001. More than 12,000 restaurant jobs in New York vanished after the attacks, and by December, almost two-thirds of them still hadn't come back.

In October 2001, as the surge of post-9/11 relief began winding down, HERE officials approached Mamdouh about setting up a sustainable organization for restaurant workers. Mamdouh began meeting regularly with Saru Jayaraman, an accomplished activist and organizer from Rochester, N.Y., and by the spring of 2002, they had a name for the new group they wanted to start: the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, or ROC-NY.

The group included a number of former Windows on the World employees. Mamdouh said he remembers that having everybody in one place again, at least initially, "was like some medicine for all of us."

The members of ROC pooled their knowledge about job openings in the city and began speaking out against restaurant owners who treated their employees unfairly. Not everyone involved with ROC had been at Windows on the World, but it was the group's ties to the Windows community that got ROC its first moment in the spotlight -- thanks to a well-publicized conflict with David Emil, Windows' former owner.

In June of 2002, Emil was opening a new restaurant in Times Square called Noche. He had rehired 16 former Windows workers -- a number that Mamdouh and Jayaraman considered unacceptably low, given that Emil had once pledged to do everything in his power to help the displaced Windows staff.

At the ROC's urging -- and after a protest in which some 50 former Windows employees picketed the new restaurant and Mamdouh led chants with a bullhorn -- Emil agreed to take on an additional 15 staff members from Windows, a victory Mamdouh said he had never expected.

Not long after, the cable news channel NY1 interviewed Jayaraman about ROC-NY's fight with Emil, and its mission to advocate for restaurant workers throughout New York.

"They put the phone number of the Center on the screen," Mamdouh remembered, "and said if you have a problem, call the Center."

The next day, he said, "the phone never stopped ringing."

'ALWAYS WE'RE TRYING'

The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York has grown exponentially. These days, there's also a Restaurant Opportunities Center in Chicago, one in Miami and five others in five more locations.

One of the places where ROC has established a presence is New Orleans -- where, Mamdouh said, some restaurant employees make so little that they can't afford rent. At the end of their shift, he said, they leave work and sleep under a bridge at the end of Canal Street.

In the past nine years, ROC -- now ROC-United, the umbrella group comprising eight chapters and 8,000 members -- has campaigned for paid sick days and minimum wage increases, and has fought against misappropriated tips and workplace discrimination. It's published more than a dozen reports on the restaurant industry, and won more than $5 million in settlements for aggrieved workers.

It has also compiled a list of restaurants where the conscientious diner can enjoy a meal -- places where employers pay fair wages, allow paid time off and make options for health care available. And Mamdouh has become an outspoken advocate for immigration reform (a subject he and a co-author wrote about for The Huffington Post in 2009).

Shailesh Shrestha, a founding member and board member of ROC-NY, told The Huffington Post that his work with the organization has afforded him "full respect and dignity."

"That was my ultimate dream of my life," said Shrestha, who moved to New York from Nepal in 1997 to pursue acting, and worked as a server at Windows on the World for a year and a half before it was destroyed. "I did not chose to come this country for any comfort or luxury, but for self-respect, pride and dignity," he said in an email.

ROC has also opened a restaurant of its own -- though not before a divisive, three-year planning and fundraising process, an uphill campaign that included a trip to Italy to research cooperative models and a number of unsuccessful appeals to banks and post-9/11 revitalization groups.

"We thought, 'It's going to be so easy,'" Mamdouh said. But "nobody was going to give us money." The group's political activism made potential investors wary. In the end, it took contributions from 17 small lenders to get the new venture off the ground.

The restaurant, called Colors -- a name meant to evoke the diversity of the Windows on the World community and the New York restaurant industry at large -- opened in 2006, in Manhattan's NoHo neighborhood.

Colors is run as a co-op, meaning that all the members are also part owners. Julio Anzures, the restaurant's sous chef, told The Huffington Post that the Colors staff meets frequently to discuss how the restaurant is being run, and said that all of the employees have a voice in the decision-making process.

The restaurant is scrupulous about paying overtime, Anzures said, and is much better about observing health standards than some other places where he has worked.

It also makes an effort to pay its employees a fair wage -- a practice that may be hurting its bottom line.

"This restaurant is not making a lot of profit," Anzures admitted. "Right now the business is a little slow, but we're trying. Always we're trying. Our first goal is to help the community."

Though Colors only serves food Wednesday through Saturday, it offers training classes for its junior workers seven days a week. Sekou Siby, the former Windows line cook who now serves as a co-director of ROC-NY and as the operations manager at Colors, estimated that Colors has moved more than 2,000 people through its training programs, which teach young restaurant workers the ins and outs of food preparation, serving and bartending.

"There are a lot of people who can't go to culinary school because they can't afford it," Siby said. "We provide training for free."

Both Siby and Mamdouh echoed Anzures's assertion that while business may not be booming, Colors doesn't measure its success solely in financial terms.

Mamdouh recalled running into a woman, not long ago, who had once worked at a foundation that declined to give funding to Colors in its infancy. She'd asked him if Colors was making money now.

"I told her -- you should ask me how many people changed their lives because of Colors," Mamdouh said. "How many people come who were busboys and dishwashers, and now they are waiters. How many families are profiting, and how many families are good just because of Colors."

That, he said, is the restaurant's real goal -- and it's one that Colors has met many times over. The organization's roots in tragedy have given it a set of priorities that go beyond simply making a profit.

"This is all happening because of 9/11," Mamdouh said. "The people that I lost on 9/11 want me to do this ... It's not just revenge, it's not just crying. It's going and helping our community. It's doing something good from bad."

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