Food fight

Jan 20, 2010 at 12:00 am

Fed up with alleged abuses and the restaurant owners' reported refusal to meet with them in an attempt to address grievances, eight current and former workers at Andiamo in Dearborn have turned to the court and two federal agencies for help.

Since November, workers at the eatery have been staging weekly protests involving 50 to 150 people to draw attention to their complaints, which include claims that minimum wage and overtime laws aren't being followed. The workers claim that they are owed $125,000 in pay and damages. They also allege discrimination and illegal retaliation for trying to have their grievances addressed. In addition to the federal lawsuit, complaints have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Jan. 12 are Andiamo of Dearborn, Inc., its owner and president Joseph Vicari, owner Fred Giordano and manager Tony Gagnon. Although there are 11 Andiamo restaurants in the metro area, the complaints involve only the Dearborn location.

Attempts by News Hits to obtain comments from Andiamo's management and its attorney were unsuccessful. However, the restaurant's attorney, Marla Linderman, did issue a prepared statement that was released to other media.

Denying any wrongdoing on the part of her client and calling the lawsuit "frivolous," Linderman said, "Rather than believe unproven words on paper, come to Andiamo of Dearborn and you will see the reality." Linderman also claimed that the workers and their supporters at the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) have refused to provide the restaurant with details of their complaints.

The protests, however, didn't begin until after Andiamo's management refused to sit down with workers and discuss their complaints, says Minsu Longiaru, coordinator for the ROC in Michigan. The nonprofit group is the state affiliate of a national organization founded in 2008. 

The group provides workforce training and development to help restaurant workers advance in the industry to higher-paying jobs, and conducts research to help promote what are considered the industry's best practices where employees are treated well, says Longiaru. To that end, the group will be holding a policy summit in Detroit on Feb. 9. 

As the third leg of its platform, the group is involved in a "workplace justice" campaign aimed at holding what Longiaru describes as the industry's "low-road actors" publicly accountable.

The protests at Andiamo's and the subsequent lawsuit filed in the U.S. District court in Detroit last week are the first such actions ROC has initiated in Michigan. Longiaru, in an interview with News Hits, stresses that the workers would prefer to settle the issue in face-to-face meetings with restaurant management rather than in court, but that Andiamo's management has refused to talk.

The eight workers named in the federal lawsuit are being represented by attorneys from the nonprofit Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice. John Philo, Sugar's legal director, tells us, "It's always been our position that, if they [Andiamo's management or their attorney] were willing to meet in good faith and talk, we'd be willing to do that."

Until then, workers and their supporters will continue holding protests outside the restaurant every Friday.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]