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The 90-year-old Midtown restaurant the 21 Club stands on an empty street in Manhattan in December.

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Will 21 Club Return? Its Murky Future Is Splitting Apart the Icon’s Union.

Former employees are in turmoil over payouts versus holding out for jobs in case the Midtown institution reopens

21 Club in Midtown.
| Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Erika Adams is the editor of Eater Boston.

Throughout the past year, staff turmoil has been roiling behind the scenes at shuttered Midtown institution 21 Club. Eleven months after the club officially shut down, five former workers in the restaurant’s decades-old union say members are still fighting to secure a substantial severance package from the company, or the right to their old jobs if 21 Club’s owner, billion-dollar luxury conglomerate LVMH, chooses to reopen the club. While the staffers rallied together at first, publicly protesting LVMH’s decision to close the club, the union has started to become unglued as neither severance packages nor job assurances have materialized in nearly a year, workers say.

Last December, 21 Club announced that it was permanently closing, another apparent restaurant casualty of the pandemic. The news drew national headlines: The 90-year-old Midtown icon was a regular haunt for presidents, celebrities, and storied New York personalities over the years. Then, in March, a representative for hospitality group and LVMH subsidiary Belmond told the New York Times that, actually, the restaurant as New York knew it wasn’t coming back, but something different and “distinctive” might be rising up in its place.

A month later, a Belmond representative reiterated the same sentiment to the New York Post, saying that the luxury group was “exploring potential opportunities” for bringing the space back to life, but they were “not ready to announce any final concept or timeframe.”

No one has followed these breadcrumbs hinting at a 21 Club revival more closely than the restaurant’s stronghold of unionized staffers, represented by local restaurant workers union Unite Here Local 100. Out of the club’s roughly 150 staffers, only a handful are nonunionized, and were offered severance packages at the time of their termination, unionized staffers say. But the majority of staffers, who are unionized, have not been paid severance nearly a year after the restaurant closed down while the terms of the payout remain unsettled.

Workers take down the iconic jockey statues from the front of the 90-year-old Midtown restaurant the 21 Club on December 14, 2020.
Workers removing 21 Club’s signature jockey statues from the restaurant last December.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The issues started with the original severance agreement outlined in 21 Club’s union contract, which Eater has reviewed. The contract specified two weeks severance pay in total for any staffer who worked at the club for more than five years, which some staffers — who spent the better part of their careers at 21 Club — refused outright to accept at the time.

Chauncey Duren, the first Black bar room captain at the establishment and a 15-year employee at the club, estimates that he made an annual income in “the high five figures,” with tips, at his position when the club was open. He says the severance package in the union contract would have guaranteed him about $600 in total. “It’s a disgraceful shame,” Duren says.

LVMH did make a more lucrative offer when the permanent closure was announced — one week’s pay per year for up to 13 years of service, according to documents reviewed by Eater — but it still seemed low to staffers like John Papaliberios, who worked as a server at 21 Club for 29 years, and is a leader on the union’s bargaining committee. According to Papaliberios, future job security and a larger severance package more commensurate with years of service was a fair request for LVMH — owned by Bernard Arnault, who jockeys with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for the title of the richest man in the world — amid the shutdown. “They’re using the pandemic as an excuse just to throw the union out,” Papaliberios says.

In an emailed statement to Eater, a Belmond representative declined to comment on specific questions related to the union, including the state of the unionized staff’s severance packages, citing ongoing conversations with the union.

Without an agreed-upon severance package, some staffers began to doubt that the union’s bargaining committee, including Papaliberios, were fighting for the full staff’s best interests. Sergio Caplan, a union worker and former bargaining committee member who was a bartender for 21 Club for four years prior to the citywide shutdown, says that some in the union eventually simply wanted access to a payout — even a lesser one — in order to help pay bills and move on from the club. Caplan pushed for the union’s leaders to survey each member to determine what to prioritize in negotiations, but the union’s bargaining committee didn’t want to focus on severance talks, he says. Instead, he claims that they were more focused on assuring that 21 Club workers would still have jobs if the restaurant were to return. (Papaliberios disputes the characterization. He says that members were asked on a Zoom call in December 2020 whether anyone wanted to take LVMH’s severance package at the time, although he acknowledges that committee members advised the union to fight for a better package. Since then, he says that LVMH has not responded to negotiations. “We’re doing our best, but there’s nothing we can do,” Papaliberios says.)

That didn’t sit well with some staffers who have since found new jobs and simply wanted the union to secure a reasonable severance package for them. “21 Club is not going to open up again,” Flavio Moure, another former bar room captain who now works at another restaurant in the city, says. “We’re not going to get our jobs back.”

In February, Caplan says that he was removed from the bargaining committee and allegedly cut out from union communications after continuing to argue for full staff surveys in meetings. “I did not let up with the union,” Caplan says. “I was like, ‘We’re not doing it right.’”

Caplan then filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against 21 Club’s union in March, which Eater has reviewed. He was then added back to union communications, he says, although he remained off the committee.

Other staffers, some of whom have worked at the restaurant for decades and viewed the job as the pinnacle of their career, prioritized job security over severance provisions. Duren says that he would rather see the union secure jobs for its members in the possible next iteration of 21 Club, but so far, neither Belmond nor LVMH have indicated to the union what form 21 Club will be returning in, or a timeframe for the reopening, according to Duren and other staffers who spoke with Eater.

The Belmond representative reiterated in a statement to Eater what the company has said publicly in the past about future plans for the 21 Club. “Following the guidance of government and public health officials, 21 Club closed in March 2020 in order to protect its guests and employees,” the representative said in the statement. “In November 2020, in light of the pandemic’s impact and the extended recovery period for the hospitality industry, the difficult decision was made to keep 21 Club closed. Belmond has not made any decisions on how the space will be used going forward.”

A lamppost featuring 21 Club’s logo stands in front of the restaurant with Midtown buildings in the background.
21 Club’s parent company has hinted at bringing back the space in some form.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The murky responses have left staffers searching for bits of information elsewhere. Caplan noticed in May that a message had popped up on 21 Club’s TripAdvisor page listing the establishment as temporarily closed until May 9, 2022, but a Belmond spokesperson told Eater at the time that was an error that Belmond’s digital team was working to correct (as of publication, the date still stands). Duren heard a rumor that the spot would reopen as a private club with a luxury retail component, but the spokesperson reiterated that the company was not ready to announce “any final concept or timeframe.”

“They definitely plan to reopen,” Duren says. “Just not with the union.”

As time dragged on, 21 Club’s unionized staffers watched as elsewhere in the hospitality sphere, NYC’s hotel unions secured industry-wide pandemic labor protections including severance agreements amounting to four days of pay for each year worked — with no cap — plus recall rights, or the right to be called back to the same job if it were to open up again. Mayor Bill de Blasio also signed a bill into law in October requiring closed-down hotels to pay severance of $500 per week for 30 weeks for each laid-off employee if the property did not reopen by November 1.

In the meantime, the workers were cut off from the company’s health insurance plan in September, according to emails reviewed by Eater, and 21 Club’s union contract expired at the end of October. The Belmond representative says that the company will continue to negotiate with the union’s leaders past the contract expiration, although they did not disclose the details or goals of those talks. According to NYC-based employment lawyer David Glanstein, companies with a unionized workforce are still generally required to bargain with union members past contract expiration, in accordance with federal labor laws.

For the former employees of the 21 Club, the past year has been a bitter end to what many saw as one of the best jobs in the industry, in part because of its union protections. “This was the last restaurant I wanted to work in,” Duren says. “I had no plans to go anywhere else.”

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