Day laborer takes action after Meniz Co. steals wages

José did nine days of cleaning and landscaping work for the Meniz Company as a day laborer several months ago. The owners of the company, Johnny, Victor, and Oscar Meniz, hired him at a rate of $15/hr for a total of 78 hours. When the time came to pay José for his work, the Meniz brothers decided to steal his wages ($1,170) instead.

Frustrated, José contacted the Seattle Solidarity Network, who voted to take on his fight. We quickly found that the Meniz brothers have a history of abusing workers. The Meniz Company was cited by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for stealing overtime pay, deducting and pocketing extra money from worker paychecks, and writing workers bad checks in February of 2012. One of the brothers, Oscar, owns another business, already on the Labor and Industries contractor “strike list” for wage and hour violations. Clearly, the Meniz brothers have made a habit of greedily exploiting honest workers.

On Monday, December 22, José and a group of SeaSolers confronted Victor and Johnny Meniz at a coffee shop, demanding that José be paid in full. Both thieves were startled and confused as José confidently handed over the demand. We gave the Meniz brothers two weeks to pay up.

After two weeks, the bosses hadn’t paid what they owed so SeaSolers put up posters exposing their deeds around the Meniz Company office at 5470 Shilshole Ave NW in Ballard. José and SeaSol are gearing up to take further direct action against the Meniz Company if they do not pay José’s wages. If you’re interested in helping or have questions, please contact SeaSol.

Seattle Solidarity Network Wins First Multi-Worker Strike!

The owners of La Lot restaurant in downtown Seattle didn’t last long. Hien, Jeff, and SeaSol are proud to announce that, as of September 1st, La Lot management agreed to meet all of the demands set forth at the start of the strike! This means announcing a policy whereby all tips are distributed to workers, not to bosses, and restoration of Hien to her regular work schedule.

The La Lot strike began after Hien, a server at La Lot, asked management to stop stealing workers’ tips. A reasonable enough request, it would seem, but her boss responded by drastically cutting her hours. Unable to survive on her dramatically reduced wages, and unwilling to accept such a glaring injustice, she started talking to her coworkers about fighting back. After some less-than-promising conversations with state and local government entities, Hien and her fellow worker, Jeff, contacted SeaSol to talk about a direct action campaign.

On August 7th, Hien, Jeff, and over 50 SeaSol members marched into La Lot and delivered a letter containing the workers’ demands and announcing that Hien and Jeff were on strike against unfair labor practices. Almost immediately, three other workers, who were afraid to join the fight but also unwilling to work during a strike, left the job. Management’s attempts to soften the impact of the strike by asking other workers to take extra shifts were unsuccessful.

By August 11th, after just one small flyering action, La Lot’s owner was openly expressing concern about the impact of the strike on their business. They asked for a suspension of the campaign while they negotiated to end the strike. After two days of talks, however, it was clear that they were not serious about meeting Hien’s and Jeff’s demands. Pickets continued during La Lot’s happy hours and lunch rush periods, doing increasingly serious economic damage. The number of customers during lunch was often cut in half, while the restaurant was nearly empty during happy hours.

After two more weeks of actions, La Lot’s owner contacted SeaSol on August 27th to announce that she was ready to meet all of Hien’s and Jeff’s demands. Starting at the beginning of the next work week, managers and owners would no longer be entitled to any of the servers’ tips, and Hien would be restored to a schedule with the same number of hours she was working prior to the events that led to the strike.

This is a major victory for the workers at La Lot and for SeaSol. The outcome of the strike obviously improves conditions for workers and serves as a potent demonstration of their power as an organized force. It is also a milestone in SeaSol history, as our first strike involving multiple workers. We hope this is the start of a trend of organizing larger numbers of workers to fight for their rights against their bosses. Just as important, this fight was not only about recovering stolen wages, but also about allowing the striking workers to return to work after the strike.

As we celebrate this exciting victory, we remain mindful that the working class’ struggle against exploitation always goes on. Make sure you are signed up to receive updates from SeaSol, and keep up to date on this and other opportunities to support struggles by brave workers standing up for their rights!

Workers Strike at La Lot Vietnamese Restaurant

When Hien started working at La Lot she was told that things there worked a little differently: management would retain 60% of any tips she earned. She had never worked in a restaurant before, didn’t know anything about the relevant labor laws, and needed a job– so she agreed. She quickly learned that most of her co-workers were also working under similar or even more exploitative arrangements. To make matters worse, managers routinely belittled and disrespected their under-paid workforce. As time passed, and Hien began to compare what her paychecks should be to the meager sums she was actually receiving, she decided she needed to do something. She approached some of her co-workers about the issue, and two of them agreed to go with her to confront the owner about her unfair and illegal practice.

In the end, Hien and one other co-worker went to have a conversation with their boss. The owner was upset and refused to give them all of their tips, but initially agreed to let them retain a larger share. Hien wasn’t satisfied but was feeling better until the next week’s schedule came out: her hours were cut in half. Then she received a call later that same week telling her they were training someone new so she would only be working one day per week now. She was clearly being retaliated against for standing up for herself and her co-workers. She was furious, but didn’t know what to do. She began approaching various government agencies such as the Washington State department of Labor and Industries and the city’s Human Right’s Commission, but the outlook wasn’t good. All of those processes would take a long time with uncertain results, and Hien and her husband needed that income now. Luckily, Jeff, her co-worker who had intended to go with her to confront her boss in the first place but had been on vacation at the time, had heard of another group that might be able to help.

Jeff and Hien met with a few volunteers from SeaSol and things started to move quickly. Their demands were simple: restore Hien’s schedule and implement a fair tip structure at La Lot. They would go on strike due to unfair labor practices with SeaSol’s support until all their demands were met. They approached some of their co-workers to see if they would join and while they supported the demands without exception they were too fearful of retaliation to join. After all, they had just recently seen what happened to Hien’s hours after she spoke up. On the afternoon of Thursday, August 7th, Hien and Jeff marched into La Lot with approximately fifty supporters from SeaSol to deliver their demands in writing and begin their strike.

Hien and Jeff have now been on strike for over one week. Management has indicated that they may be willing to settle, but have so far refused to actually implement any changes at La Lot. SeaSol members have twice gone to distribute fliers during La Lot’s busy lunch rush, typically turning away approximately 25% of would-be customers with just a few people. On the evening of Friday August 15th, we held our first real picket outside the restaurant. More than forty SeaSol supporters chanted and held signs brining dinner business at La Lot to a stand still. The pickets will continue to become more frequent until the striking workers’ demands are met. Please stay tuned for more information about this exciting campaign.

Sterling Manor tenants win massive repairs from landlords

The first round of our nine-month fight with Cornell & Associates has ended in victory for the Sterling Manor Tenants Committee and SeaSol. To satisfy our demands, the landlords have so far spent over $50,000 on an ongoing large-scale project to fix the problems of mold and decay that have long plagued the Sterling Manor apartments in north Seattle, causing health problems and triggering one of SeaSol’s most ambitious campaigns to date. “It’s important not to be intimidated into allowing our rights to be violated,” says a member of the Tenants’ Committee. “It’s hard to decide to get involved in a fight, but in the end you can do anything with support. We did it.”

Cornell & Associates, which manages Sterling Manor, is one of the biggest residential landlords in Seattle. We knew from the outset that they might not care about tenants getting sick due to lack of maintenance, as long as it didn’t hurt their business. However, we had no idea of the level of hostility with which they would react to our demands for mold inspection and repairs.

Within a few days of the August 2013 demand delivery, Cornell & Associates launched eviction attempts against two Sterling Manor tenants who had signed onto the demand letter. In response, hundreds of “Don’t rent here!” warning posters went up around Cornell-run apartment buildings, replaced over and over as management scrambled to keep removing them. Online ratings of Cornell buildings plummeted as people posted dozens of candid reviews, and Sterling Manor’s official photos on became close-ups of the mold and bedbugs in the building.

We held pickets outside Cornell’s offices on a weekly basis, displaying a huge “Cornell is a slumlord” banner. Delegations visited the neighbors of Cornell executive Bart Flora and of the manager of Sterling Manor, letting them know about the slumlords in their midst. SeaSol’s allies in Florida even brought the message to the neighborhood of Sterling Manor’s owner, visiting the small beach-front town where he was spending the fall and winter.

We stopped one the evictions by fundraising to pay off a disputed utility bill. The other eviction order was eventually dropped because the tenant, Paula, had been planning to move anyway. But she remained active in the fight: “Even though they tried to evict me, I decided to continue supporting the fight, so that the next people to move in wouldn’t have to suffer like we did,” Paula says. “I still have health problems even after moving out.”

Some tenants were intimidated by this retaliation, but the most active Tenant Committee members became more determined than ever. One tenant joined the SeaSol organizing committee. Seeing that the eviction attempts weren’t stopping us, the company resorted to its next tactic, hiring a law firm to sue SeaSol and three individual SeaSol members.

Their lawsuit was designed to make our people afraid to be seen on the picket lines. First one individual member was sued, then a second, then a third, with the documents listing a series of not-yet-named “John & Jane Doe” defendants. Their lawyer showed up at one of our pre-picket meet-ups bearing a thick stack of lawsuit papers and photographed of people’s faces. He lectured us loudly (until we shut him down) about how, if we failed to respond to the lawsuit, we would automatically owe Cornell huge sums of money and our credit would be ruined forever. He seemed to assume that we—an organization with no funding, no office, no staff—would not be able to cope with a lawsuit.

He should have known better. SeaSol has already been sued once before, by Lorig Associates in 2010, and we carried on and won our direct action campaign, all while fending off their legal attacks with the help of some great pro-bono lawyers. This time around we were stronger and better prepared. Their claims were baseless: essentially Cornell told the court that we were hurting their business by lying about mold problems at Sterling Manor. And yet we had photos of mold-covered walls, and even inspection reports from the American Lung Association which showed excessively high moisture levels. Within weeks, we secured excellent legal counsel (BJT Legal’s Brendan Donckers, who had defended us against Lorig), and raised money for legal costs.

The pickets at Cornell’s offices, which they were going to great legal expense to try to stop, did not stop. Neither did the posters, nor the embarrassing neighborhood protests. We also sent letters to dozens of landlords who employed Cornell to manage their buildings. According to court documents, one landlord fired Cornell.

The first clear sign that we were winning was when the owner of Sterling Manor, Richard Herman, made a personal visit to the building. Soon after, a series of major repairs began, including replacing water damaged carpets and doors, fixing leaks, replacing sheetrock and remodeling apartments, remodeling kitchens and bathrooms to prevent mold, and replacing the roof.

Unfortunately the landlords did not bring in an independent mold inspector prior to starting the repair work. However, based on tenants’ observations, we have reason to believe that this is a genuine and substantial effort to fix the mold problems, unlike the superficial work (like painting over the mold) that had been the rule before our fight. At this point over $50,000 has already gone into these repairs, according to court documents submitted by Cornell & Associates’ lawyers, with promises that the work will continue.

Cornell’s lawsuit received an unfavorable judgment in court on April 4th, 2014, which they are appealing. We hope this will be a lesson to other businesses and institutions who think they can use the legal system to squash collective action.

Assuming the ongoing and promised repairs are carried out and there is no further retaliation, we are declaring victory in our campaign against Cornell and Associates. Given Cornell’s size and reputation, as well as our ongoing relationship with the tenants, we may well have to fight them again. But for now, it’s time to celebrate a hard-earned victory. Thanks to everyone who’s helped carry SeasSol to one of our biggest victories yet!

Victory in Wage Theft Fight against the Bombay Grill

demand delivery at Bombay Grill  Bombay Grill pays up

José endured seven months as an underpaid cook at the Bombay Grill in the University District, receiving hourly wages between 81 cents and $4. Adding insult to injury, he faced threats and intimidation from bosses Glen Quadros and Kailash Upadhyay on a regular basis. Because his wages were insufficient for rent anywhere else, José had to sleep on the floor of the filthy restaurant during the heat of summer (which Glen called “room and board”).

After seeing a SeaSol sticker at his local laundromat, José decided to stand up against his bosses and fight back using direct action. He called SeaSol and we voted to take on his fight.

On January 4, 2014, a large group of SeaSolers filled the Bombay Grill to support José as he delivered a demand to his former bosses. José and SeaSol demanded payment of the equivalent of one month’s stolen wages, which came to $2,261.30. Glen ignored the letter, looking with condescension at the faces surrounding him, as a waitress picked it up and read it aloud. During the two weeks following the demand delivery, Glen and Kailash neglected to pay José the portion of his wages he had demanded. As we knew the Bombay Grill would likely be closing down very soon, there was a degree of urgency in SeaSol’s approach to this fight which influenced major decisions we made at meetings.

In the following weeks, SeaSol’s campaign against the wage thieves Glen and Kailash escalated from small flyerings and posterings around the restaurant to larger, noisier pickets. Our largest picket was on February 14th; we turned away many Valentine’s Day customers with high-energy chants and noisemaking, leaving Glen and Kailash visibly upset at their loss of profits for the night and acting like fools in their parking lot. We turned away the majority of their business during every action, and the bosses slowly began to accept that José and SeaSol were not going away until the demand was met.

Throughout the fight, the bosses at the Bombay Grill gave us the run-around, claiming they wanted to meet up and pay at least once a week and then trying to negotiate paying a lesser amount, creepily trying to get José alone in the restaurant with them, and trying to talk José into “not telling anyone” about the conditions he faced working in their restaurant. On Friday February 21, 2014, the sleazy Glen and Kailash set up a meeting with SeaSol and José yet again, writing a check for the full demand. Immediately afterward, as José went to cash the check, the greedy and stupid bosses walked smirking out of the bank. They had canceled the check, and thought their problems were solved.

At noon the following day, a dozen SeaSolers showed up for a picket of the Bombay Grill’s lunch buffet. With this, Glen realized that he and his partner in crime had not outsmarted us, and went to the bank to get José a cashier’s check for the full amount of the demand, which José walked away with that same day. Thanks to everyone who participated in this fight! Victory is ours!