What is everyday life really like for restaurant workers in Ann Arbor?

In an attempt to recognize and remedy the hardships faced by employees of local eateries, a group of University students developed the Restaurant Workplace Project-Ann Arbor, a coalition advocating safe and fair working conditions for all employees, including immigrants, in Ann Arbor restaurants.

Students, faculty and restaurant workers and owners packed the Henderson Room of the Michigan League last night for the first public meeting of the coalition.

“With both wages and hours, we are advocating for restaurants to obey the law,” said LSA senior Dae Keun Andres Kwon, a project contributor. “To go by what’s in the books, that’s all.”

A small group of students enrolled in a political science course created the coalition in October.

Political Science Prof. Greg Markus, who also serves as vice president for the Detroit-based Metropolitan Organizing Strategies Enabling Strength which works with the group, facilitates the project.

From October 2005 to last month, students surveyed and interviewed more than 100 Ann Arbor restaurant workers, including many undocumented immigrants, about their workplace experiences concerning wages, hours, safety and benefits.

According to the survey results, 75 percent of the workers said they experienced verbal abuse from restaurant supervisors and two-thirds of immigrant workers said they consistently do not receive overtime pay.

Kwon said the purpose of last night’s meeting was to educate people about issues that affect not only restaurant employees but patrons as well.

“We want to show the industry that it is possible to be successful without cutting corners,” Kwon said. “If the morale of workers is high, then the product and service will be as well.”

Kwon cited several examples of places that treat their workers well like Zingerman’s Deli, Ann Arbor Brewing Company and Zanzibar.

Paul Saginaw, the co-owner of Zingerman’s Deli, said patrons’ decisions of where to eat need to involve more than just convenience, because people behind the counter may not be getting fair treatment.

To the workers themselves, Saginaw had a more direct suggestion: “If you want to protest, come and work for me.”

To protect the restaurant workers involved and because many more interviews are needed, group members said they would not publicly disclose a list of restaurants associated with worker dissatisfaction or labor rights infractions.

LSA junior Brianna Fritz, a member of the group, said although a future boycott of local restaurants is not out of the question, the group views it as a last resort.

“The point isn’t to bully restaurants into anything,” Fritz said. “It’s to help the workers.”

Fritz also said she expects the group will announce details regarding poorly evaluated restaurants when they are sure of the information’s accuracy.

Many student organizations and activist groups currently engaged in immigrant outreach – including Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, the Graduate Employees Organization and Migrant and Immigrant Rights Awareness – have declared their support for the efforts of the project.

To boost campus awareness of and involvement in the project, group members have spent the past 10 days petitioning and collecting signatures of more than 1,000 students.

Members of the project said they plan on registering with the Michigan Student Assembly as a recognized student organization. Over the next few months and into the fall semester, the group also aims to obtain the support of more restaurant owners and expand research efforts to restaurants throughout the city.

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