Strike Hits 2 Of New York City's Fanciest Restaurants

Nearly 100 cooks, waiters, dishwashers and busboys gathered in front of the "21" Club on West 52nd Street in the late morning, forcing the restaurant to close its main dining room for lunch. The strikers bellowed chants that could be heard at the one private function being held there at lunchtime.


James Estrin/The New York Times
Workers at the `21' Club went on strike yesterday. The restaurant closed its main dining room, but brought in replacements for some of the striking cooks, waiters, dishwashers and busboys to serve private functions.

The main issue in the walkout, as with many other strikes across the nation, is the restaurants' push to get their workers to pay more toward their health coverage. The restaurants want the workers to begin paying at least part of their health insurance premiums, but the workers, knowing they are employed by institutions that cater largely to the rich, insist that the restaurants owners can easily afford any increase in health insurance costs.

"The union never had to pay a premium for health coverage, and it never will," said John Papaliberios, a waiter at the "21" Club. "A lot of the dishwashers and cooks earn just $9, $10, $11 an hour, and they can't afford to pay more for their health coverage."

Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, the city's largest union of restaurant workers, chose the two Midtown restaurants as its pressure points in a contract fight involving 800 workers at 25 New York City restaurants, including the Four Seasons, Cafe des Artistes and the Oyster Bar. The contracts at all 25 restaurants expired on Saturday.

Talks broke off Friday evening, but the two sides resumed intense negotiations at 11:30 a.m. yesterday with the help of a federal mediator. Brooks Bitterman, research director of Local 100, warned that the walkout might be expanded to other restaurants within the next week if an agreement was not reached soon.

Last night, Richard Wilsker, the chief negotiator for many of the restaurants, said there was a "reasonable breakthrough in the negotiations" for three restaurants that are seen as leaders in the talks for management - the "21" Club, La Caravelle and the Four Seasons.

In the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, restaurant owners noted that their business was down sharply, and insisted that they needed to hold down labor and other costs, especially soaring health care costs. The strike came as the restaurant business was starting to show marked improvement, due in part to an improving economy.

The restaurants have proposed having the workers pay $5 a week for health premiums in the first year of a three-year contract, whether workers have individual or family coverage. That would rise to $520 a year in the contract's second year and $780 in the third year.

The restaurant owners argue that it is only fair for the workers to begin contributing toward their health premiums, because employers nationwide face health costs that are rising by more than 10 percent a year.

But Adalberto Alonso, the bartender at La Caravelle, who is known for inventing a Champagne and vodka drink, the Adalberto No. 1, said, "We're on strike for health benefits. It's not fair that they want to reduce it."

Diana Biederman, the spokeswoman for the "21" Club, said the restaurant kept its main dining room closed for dinner last night, but served a large private party at dinnertime. She said that the six top chefs were working - they are not in the union - and that more than 40 replacement workers had crossed the picket line.

Union officials said the dishwashers and busboys earn an average of $8 to $11 an hour, while assistant cooks average $10 to $13 an hour, although more senior assistant cooks earn up to $20 an hour. At the "21" Club, the waiters' wages and tips often exceed $25 an hour on busy days.

Union officials said management had offered the cooks a total raise of $45 a week over three years and the dishwashers a raise of $36. Management is not offering a raise to the waiters. The union is asking for raises of $60 over three years for the cooks and dishwashers.


Andres Giro, left, a waiter at the 21 Club and member of AFL CIO Local 100, Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, hands a 21 Club restaurant patron a flier while picketing in front of the restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2003 in New York. Union contracts representing 800 workers in 25 Manhattan white tablecloth restaurants expired on Oct. 31, 2003, the main area of disagreement is the company's demand workers accept an increasing share of the costs of their health insurance. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)