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NYC’s First Major Restaurant Union Since Covid Loses Ground After Vote

The Lodi restaurant union is alleging union-busting actions and is awaiting an investigation into the election

Patrons dine under umbrellas at Lodi, one of whom is petting a small dog.
The Lodi restaurant union is hoping to appeal following a vote this week in favor of not unionizing.
Alex Staniloff/Eater NY

Restaurant workers at Lodi, the acclaimed Rockefeller Center restaurant by Ignacio Mattos — behind Estela, Cafe Altro Paradiso, and Corner Bar — have voted not to unionize (for now).

While a mix of front- and back-of-house workers had opted to join the Restaurant Workers Union on January 25, Mattos Hospitality did not voluntarily recognize the union. The initial election that took place on February 27 and 28 would have allowed the National Labor Relations Board to formally recognize their union. The union is waiting on an investigation from the NLRB.

Mattos Hospitality runs some of the trendiest, priciest restaurants in New York City; in January 2022, New York Times food critic Pete Wells called Lodi, “so much better than it needs to be that it’s disorienting ... it will never want for customers.” He later named it a top restaurant of the year.

As previously reported by Eater in January, what was at stake from the initial vote was not only the potential for wage increases but adequate staffing and supplies as well as training, according to the union.

Throughout the process of unionization, the Restaurant Workers Union has alleged union-busting tactics in play, according to the Guardian. The union later stated that it had filed for unfair labor practice charges with NLRB, alleging Mattos Hospitality had held numerous captive-audience meetings, wherein an employer tries to discourage unionization, among other actions. Mattos Hospitality denied these allegations and Mattos told the publication in a statement, “I am committed to preserving their right to make an informed decision.”

That there even was a vote to unionize at an establishment like Lodi reinforces that, no matter the cache of a restaurant, workers — particularly coming out of the pandemic — are increasingly interested in exploring their options of forming one. While unionizing in the hospitality sector has gained traction since the start of the pandemic, until now, the majority of those successes has been at chains like Starbucks.

Lodi, with national name recognition, would have been — and potentially still could be — the first major win for the independent Restaurant Workers Union, as well as the first New York City fine-dining spot of its caliber to unionize in recent years.

Pre-pandemic, the hospitality sector had been one of the slowest to unionize — despite an industry rampant with low wages, few employee benefits, and abusive environments. The difficulty lies in part in the transient nature of the restaurant labor force. Beyond that, in an era of labor shortages, workers can find jobs with higher pay and better culture fits elsewhere — and in general, the effort it takes to unionize in the first place is simply not for everyone. Workers have also explored other avenues beyond just unions as a means for equity in the industry, including cooperative models, which, also have gained steam over the last three years.

One of the factors in workers' decision not to unionize may have been the fear of employer retaliation. No matter the outcome, employees at Lodi knew it would be a Herculean task to go up against a chef with such a strong reputation and financial support. Many alums of Mattos Hospitality group sent in letters of support ahead of the vote.

A statement provided to Eater by the Restaurant Workers Union questions the integrity of the election:

“When we filed with the NLRB on January 25 with a 2/3 majority of workers, we expected a fair election. However, our assessment is that the integrity of the election was compromised by illegal activity, including surveillance of electronic and other communications, solicitation of grievances, threats of shutdown, polling of workers, interrogation of workers, use of agents to make promises and threats, and futility [sic] arguments directed at immigrant workers. If the NLRB finds that there is substantial evidence that these violations took place, they will order a re-run of the election. We await the results of the NLRB investigations. Our hope is that workers at Lodi finally get the free and fair election they deserve.”

A statement provided to Eater by Mattos Hospitality recognizes that workers’ concerns have yet to be addressed:

“We thank every team member who participated in the election – no matter how they voted – and are reviewing next steps. I remain proud of the team and the workplace that we’ve built at Lodi, and will continue to do everything that I can to make sure that our restaurants are great places to work.”

Eater has followed up with the hospitality group, asking what tangible measures are being implemented to address workers’ concerns, despite the unionization effort defeat for the moment. Eater has also reached out to NLRB to ask more about the investigations underway and the possibility of an appeal.

In the original announcement of the unionization in January, a statement from Lodi workers at the Restaurant Workers Union stated: “We who labor together every day have no voice when it comes to our working conditions and the share of wealth we produce. The fruits of our joint labor are ultimately at the disposal of a handful of ultra-wealthy speculators and rent-collectors, including direct investors, interest-collecting bankers, and Tishman Speyer...”

Rockefeller Center developer Tishman Speyer declined to comment.