Saturday, May. 03, 2003
When the Food Workers Union stages an impromptu walkout at the U.N., the diplomats start looting for lunch and booze
By STEWART STOGEL/U.N.
Hunger pains can apparently turn even the most upstanding diplomat into a looter. At noon on Friday, food workers at the U.N. headquarters walked off their jobs, calling a wildcat strike. The result: none of the U.N.'s five restaurants and bars was staffed. The walkout left thousands of U.N. employees scrounging for lunch — eventually, the masses stripped the cafeterias of everything, including the silverware.
The food workers staged a one-day show of muscle after they learned that they would not be reimbursed for vacation pay due to a contract shift that took place in March. For the past 17 years the U.N. has been under contract to Restaurant Associates Inc. (RA). In March, RA lost the contract to Aramark Corporation, the largest U.S. food services company. According to Aramark executives who spoke to TIME, RA informed the food workers on Friday morning that it would only cover vacation pay that was issued before May 2nd, the last day of RA's U.N. contract. Any vacation pay due after May 2nd would need to be paid by Aramark.
But Aramark informed the Union it would only pay for time worked for their company and nothing previous with RA. Aramark told the union that whether or not vacation paychecks were to be issued before or after May 2nd the work in question was performed when RA held the U.N. contract.
That was enough to set the food workers walking during the height of Friday's lunch hour. After that, what ensued was nothing short of Baghdad style chaos.
Kofi Annan, who had a private lunch previously scheduled with the members of the Security Council in the Delegates Dining Room, found they were only served the main course. After that, they were on their own — no desserts, no cleanup, no coffee for Kofi. And the service was no better for anyone else at the U.N. But as tensions grew and stomachs growled, a high-ranking U.N. official boldly ordered that all the cafeterias open their doors for business even without staff. The restaurants had been locked shut by security until about 1:00 pm when the doors flung open.
The decision to make the cafeterias into "no pay zones" spread through the 40-acre complex like wildfire. Soon, the hungry patrons came running. "It was chaos, wild, something out of a war scene," said one Aramark executive who was present. "They took everything, even the silverware," she said. Another witness from U.N. security said the cafeteria was "stripped bare." And another told TIME that the cafeteria raid was "unbelievable, crowds of people just taking everything in sight; they stripped the place bare." And yet another astonished witness said that "chickens, turkeys, souffles, casseroles all went out the door (unpaid)."
The mob then moved on to the Viennese Café, a popular snack bar in the U.N.'s conference room facility. It was also stripped bare. The takers included some well-known diplomats who finished off the raid with free drinks at the lounge for delegates. When asked how much liquor was lifted from the U.N. bar, one U.S. diplomat responded: "I stopped counting the bottles." He then excused himself and headed towards the men's room.
An Aramark executive estimated the food "removed" from the U.N.'s main cafeteria at between $7,000 and $9,000 not including the staff restaurant, the Viennese Café or the Delegate's Bar. The value of the missing silverware has yet to be estimated.
Come Monday, the workers should be back at their stations. The dispute has been temporarily resolved with the Union agreeing that the vacation pay remains RA's responsibility. The Union also wasn't willing to risk Aramark's only option of replacing all the workers.
"I hope we have large crowds rushing to come to lunch on Monday," an Aramark executive said. "But this time we expect them to pay for what they take."