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January 21

Washington DC: IWW Organizing Pushes Back Against Wage Theft

Report from the IWW in DC about the start of a campaign against wage theft at a local restaurant.

The story begins with a member of the D.C. IWW working at the Mono Diner restaurant. It’s a small unassuming place located in the upper-class neighborhood of Georgetown. Surrounded by luxurious shops that are common along Wisconsin Avenue, you could easily walk right by it if you didn’t know where it was. A recent college graduate, this Fellow Worker was preparing to enter a teacher certification program with the hope of becoming an educator. The work at the diner provided him with just enough income to survive life in “The District”— with the help of two other jobs. Little did our Fellow Worker know that his life was about to get a little harder thanks to the greed and incompetence of Mono Diner’s owner.

The problems with the business were apparent from the very beginning. Despite being on staff for little more than a week, our member found himself training new staff and holding many more responsibilities than he was initially hired to perform. He did his job and he did it well. He was considered to be the best server at the Diner, but the stresses of the job in addition to everything else life as a wage-earner demands compelled him to leave after a couple of months. He went back to the Diner to pick up his final paycheck. He texted the manager that he was on his way. Upon arrival, he discovered that his paychecks were being withheld under the claim that he was paid too much on his last check. He was in shock, there was no way this was correct. He argued for a while but resigned himself to leave and seek assistance from his union — the DC IWW.

He reached out to another worker about the situation and learned she also had her pay withheld under similar pretenses. It quickly became clear this was a pattern of wage theft He assembled a coalition of nearby union members — as well as other comrades — to deliver a letter demanding the stolen wages be paid in full. It was then they discovered that a former manager of the restaurant had also had their pay stolen by the owner! The letter was accepted by another manager who was present, but the demands were not met immediately; however, this action generated a lot of attention that resulted in several Mono Diner workers reaching out to the DC IWW, as well as attracting interest from other groups who wanted to help.

With the help of a local worker’s center, the Mono Diner workers secured a meeting with a representative from the DC Attorney General’s office about Mono Diner’s bad business practices. While this was an important first step to get this situation on the record, these kinds of investigations often take months and typically don’t go anywhere. These workers needed help now. Workers cannot wait to pay their rent and buy their food. It was time for direct action. The worker compelled the owner of Mono Diner — Mr. Mohammed Esfahani — to meet with him. What Mr. Esfahani did not know was that our member would be joined by 10 other union members and friends who came to demonstrate solidarity and express outrage over the blatantly illegal wage theft. After an hour of intense negotiations, the owner agreed to pay back the stolen wages plus several hundred dollars in damages, totaling $800. There is power in a union!

This was a great demonstration of how support from our members, as well as others from the community, can win demands from workers. However, this was not the end. At the meeting, Mr. Esfahani tentatively agreed to pay back the stolen wages to the other Mono Diner Workers, but after several weeks he had not kept his promise. In response, the DC IWW launched a phone zap of the diner intending to pressure the owner to pay up. People called in from all over, IWW members and friends alike. Unfortunately, the owner still refused to even speak with the wronged workers or those working to help them. To make things worse, he shut down the diner without warning. How many people does this guy have to hurt before he learns to pay what he owes?

The DC IWW is currently working to raise the funds ourselves to help the Mono Diner workers in need. We have put up fliers and canvassed the Georgetown neighborhood in the hopes of getting in contact with more Mono Diner workers. This has had some success, but we’ll need to build more solidarity amongst workers in the community and foodservice industry if we are to succeed. There are currently about ten former Mono Diner workers who have wage theft claims. We will get back what was stolen! An injury to one is an injury to all!

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Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

The IWW is a member-run union for all workers, a union dedicated to organizing on the job, in our industries and in our communities. IWW members are organizing to win better conditions today and build a world with economic democracy tomorrow. We want our workplaces run for the benefit of workers and communities rather than for a handful of bosses and executives.

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