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ROC the House: Capitol Hill Press Conference Gives Voice to Labor Union Front Group

Representative George Miller (D-CA) spoke at a Capitol Hill press conference on April 17 calling for a “fair minimum wage” of $10.10.

This isn’t surprising, in and of itself: Rep. Miller has been a long-time advocate of raising the minimum wage. What is surprising is who introduced him: Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC).

ROC is an interesting group to be walking the Halls of Congress. To start, it’s currently part of an investigation by the House of Representatives for its “history of intimidation” towards opponents. There’s also the small fact that ROC has actively engaged in lobbying activities at the federal, state, and local levels, even though it has failed to fulfill its legal obligation to report such activities to the IRS.

You wouldn’t know this at first glance. Jayaraman and ROC were there to announce the creation of RAISE—“Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment”—purportedly a high-minded alternative to the National Restaurant Association. Despite its appearances, however, this new initiative is little more than another way to further ROC’s long-standing goal: “to organize the 99 percent of the [restaurant] industry that doesn’t have a union.”

ROC is a labor union front group with an 11-year history of intimidation and union-style brinksmanship against the restaurant industry. ROC vehemently denies its status as a labor union, because its appearance as a “worker center” independent from organized labor is critical to its legal existence–even though it was founded by the UNITE-HERE union in 2002.

Using this legal loophole is a shrewd move. By operating as a worker center, ROC can claim 501(c)(3) charitable organization status, which allows it to pay no taxes and to raise tax deductible contributions from foundations. ROC also pitched itself as a charity for the million dollars in taxpayer-funded grants it has received from the federal government. But more importantly, this also allows ROC to skirt federal labor laws, avoid union disclosure requirements, and use typical union tactics without the fear of government intervention.

Consider ROC’s campaign against celebrity chef Mario Batali’s New York City restaurants. Over a period of several weeks in 2010, ROC staged violent protests outside Batali’s restaurant, based on isolated allegations of employee mistreatment.

The mistreatment, however, was on ROC’s end. According to the restraining order request filed by Batali—and granted by the court—the protesters threatened and verbally assaulted patrons, physically blocked passage into the restaurants, vandalized property by destroying outside decorations, and even took pictures of diners through the window in an attempt to scare them from ever returning.

These tactics are commonplace for ROC: In one instance, the front group’s protesters used a 12-foot inflatable cockroach to scare off patrons. In some cases, ROC’s tactics have been so disruptive that employees at the targeted restaurants have staged counter-protests to show that ROC doesn’t speak for them at all.

Given this sordid history, it’s surprising that Rep. Miller would share the stage with the group’s chief representatives.

But it’s a relationship ROC has nurtured, because the group is more politically-savvy than it lets on. Restaurant intimidation campaigns are limited in scope; they can’t change national policy by themselves. That’s why just last month, ROC registered as a lobbying organization so that it can push for federal legislation including mandatory paid leave laws in the “Healthy Families Act” and a higher minimum wage in the “Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013.”

All of this information points to an unmistakable conclusion: There was more going on at that press conference than meets the eye. ROC’s rhetoric about RAISE may sound high-minded, but its questionable history and its hidden agenda show that its claims should be taken with a grain of salt—if not the whole shaker.

Mike Paranzino is the communications director for ROC Exposed, which is supported by a broad coalition of restaurant workers, employers, and citizens concerned about ROC’s misinformation and attack campaigns against America’s restaurants.

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