December 10, 2010

 

Chicano group leads protest against Jerusalem Cafe management
by Bruce Rodgers

Jerusalem Cafe, the popular Westport restaurant, has seen its share of crowds. But on a cold Saturday on Dec. 4, the 30 or so people gathered there weren’t waiting for a table.

Organized by MEChA, a Chicano Student organization at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, members of that group and their supporters were engaged in a picket line as a means of peaceful persuasion. Under the theme “Labor Law Violations Leave a Bad Taste,” the group sought to convince management at the Jerusalem Cafe to stop violating labor laws and negotiate a fair settlement with six kitchen and bakery workers fired last March.

MEChA or Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlån (www.nationalmecha.org) is an economic and social justice movement first organized in 1969 in Colorado. 

“We stood in solidarity against violations of fair labor laws and workers’ rights,” said Victor Flores after the protest. Flores is a member of MEChA and an UMKC student majoring in political science. “We believe what they (the fired workers) are saying.”

According to Flores and Judy Ancel, director of The Institute for Labor Studies at UMKC, some of the fired workers had worked at the Jerusalem Cafe for as long as seven years. One worker was attacked and beaten after spilling liquid on a waiter. After a police report was filed, said Ancel, that worker and five others were fired.

Protesters outside cafe
A demonstration in support of workers fired by the management of Jerusalem Café was held in front of the restaurant on Dec. 4 (photo by Bruce Rodgers)

The workers sought help at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, KS. The church is located in a neighborhood of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. The church is the founding congregation in the New Sanctuary Movement of Greater Kansas City.

The New Sanctuary Movement, begun in the early 1980s, includes churches of various denominations giving refuge to those fleeing repression in their home countries. Such congregations, united under the banner of the Sanctuary Movement, offer social service and advocacy support, and seek to change federal immigration policy. Also, church leaders pledge not to reveal the identities of these refugees even if it meant arrest and jail for doing so.

At the church, five of the six workers gave testimony, said Ancel, which revealed possible violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the law that establishes minimum wage and overtime pay requirements and guidelines. Ancel said the fired workers were Guatemalan and when asked, stated, “We don’t know their immigration status — besides it’s irrelevant to the case. Labor law covers all working people no matter their immigration status.”

One of the attorneys handling a civil suit against Jerusalem Cafe agreed with Ancel.

“No one is saying one way or another (what their immigration status is),” said Heather Schlozman. “Besides, it’s a big legal ‘so what?’ If they work, they get paid. That’s how this country works.”

Filed in federal court, the civil suit seeks $172,000 in unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay. Schlozman, together with Mark Dugan, the other attorney representing the workers, said FLSA allows the plaintiffs to go back three years, “assuming the violations were willful” and that statute “would allow a doubling of that amount.”

She describes the case as currently in the discovery phase. Discussions to settle the case haven’t been held, added Schlozman. She indicated her client was open to a “compromise” but that “no counteroffer has been made.”

Flores said that after the firing, the Jerusalem Cafe was sold, though he contends to a relative of the previous owner. Schlozman said any change in ownership is irrelevant as “We can get individual liability” concerning any possible violations of labor laws.

Flores and Ancel say they have eaten at the Jerusalem Cafe in the past. Ancel noted that after 9-11 she made a point to eat there to show support for it owners who are of Middle Eastern heritage. Flores and MEChA would like to see a fair settlement of the lawsuit. But he noted, “We will be back” in front of the restaurant if that doesn’t happen.

A person identifying himself as an employee of Jerusalem Café refused to comment on the demonstration or civil suit. He said the restaurant’s manager was unavailable at that time.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.


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