Singing Servers Fight For Their Rights in NYC
by RJ Newell
A dramatic push for workers’ rights is unfolding at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square, New York City.
Over the last year, new restaurant management has allegedly subjected workers to a slew of safety hazards, discrimination, harassment, and unfair termination. Now, over 70 employees have formed a union in the hopes of protecting their rights.
The restaurant’s owner, Ken Sturm, is doing everything in his power to stifle their efforts. “[Before we went public] they’d already forced out or terminated about 30-35 people,” says Sonny Black, a server since 2003. “These weren’t layoffs, this was unlawful.”
Ellen’s Stardust Diner abruptly ended its long-standing policy of ensuring their workers kept their jobs while away on contract. “They wanted us to book shows, because it made the restaurant look good,” says Black. But recently, performers who had booked shows outside of the restaurant were terminated without prior notice. This was just one of many infractions that led to employee protests.
Over the last few decades, Ellen’s ‘Stardusters’ have used their creative passion to transform the Diner from a restaurant to a landmark. Customers line up daily for a chance to see the singing staff.
“People come from all over the world,” Black says. “We have people from Sweden, England, Australia…people come back to this diner. Everything – the business model – is about performance.”
This is a labor of love for Ellen’s workers, who are only paid hourly server wages and tips. Singing servers are not compensated for their rehearsals, choreography or live performances. Before now, servers were simply grateful for the chance to infuse art with their day jobs. “We’re a family,” says Black. “The average tenure of a server here is 6 years. We have people who have been here for a long time.”
Today, the long-term employees of Ellen’s Stardust Diner are risking their jobs to keep the magic alive.
Sturm has cracked down on their efforts severely. “They’ve instituted policy procedure – and some of it’s ridiculous,” Black explains. “They’re forcing people out or writing them up frivolously. Some people have been here 12, 13 years and they’re just firing them. If they were dissatisfied with the employees job performance, it’s a weird coincidence that it’s happening now. It’s also a weird coincidence that these people are all supportive of the union.”
Sturm has hired famed anti-union attorney Brent Yessin to help subdue the staff. Union busters are imposing mandatory meetings during the workers’ shifts, handing out anti-union flyers and warning employees not to join. A surprising number of long-term employees were terminated in the last few days, and dozens of new employees were hired.
“They’ve fired 13 people in the last four days,” says Black. “I was number 11.”
The servers of Ellen’s Stardust Diner have shared a number of stories detailing incidents of mismanagement, endangerment and discrimination from their supervisors.
Zech Azazi, a server of six years, has worked shifts of ten hours or more without breaks or meals. “This past Thanksgiving… I worked and was scheduled from 4:00am - 7:00pm without a break or meal and was later chastised for working overtime,” he says. After servers complained, it seemed like the management was looking for every possible reason to fire them.
“Straw wrappers on a table were cause for suspension or even termination,” says Azazi. “Certain people were targeted and bullied into submission and encouraged to leave or terminated. We were labeled entitled, insipid, and replaceable.”
Meg Doherty-Scannell, another server at Ellen’s, recalls a number of safety hazards brought on by chronic mismanagement. “The guys in the kitchen are sweltering because of the heat,” she says. “The burger grill is broken and electrocuting the guys working back there. The bartender is getting electrocuted by the freezer when he goes in for ice cream.”
Workers’ complaints were met with vague replies, written up as infractions, or ignored completely. “[Servers] are frightened of speaking up, are terrified of losing their job, and now these people are being preyed upon,” says Black. “Some of them are long-time employees – it’s very disheartening.”
After Doherty-Scannell was sexually harassed by a pack of physically aggressive teenage boys, she went to a female manager and asked her for help. “I’m not easily flustered,” Meg says, “but I was literally on the verge of tears. I told [the manager] about the boys, and she just told me to suck it up and deal with it. The management is refusing to take care of their staff.
“Later that night, I got written up for not singing happy birthday because a guest was trying to talk to me. They wrote me up for not singing, even though we aren’t paid to sing.”
Both male and female servers have reported discrimination based on their looks. “I’ve been told by a manager that I should apologize to another male server because I’m not as attractive… despite the fact that this particular server was physically violent during our disagreement,” Azazi says. “I’ve [also] been told by a manager that I should lose weight because my ‘man boobs’ are unappetizing.”
When incidents of harassment and discrimination occur, servers don’t feel safe asking management for help.
“I had a particular instance with religious discrimination by a manager who was obviously not aware of my religious affiliation,” says Jenna Miller, a server of 8 years. “Another manager overheard and went to our head of operations at the time and disclosed the details of the incident. I was assured that he would take care of it and asked not to tell anyone.” After making that promise, the supervisor did nothing to aid in Miller’s claim. “[He] questioned my religious affiliation and asked me to corroborate it with my last name,” she says. “Ironically enough, the discriminatory manager was the very same manager who fired me.”
Servers say they’ve had to wet-vac a flood of stray sewage themselves (while still ushering guests into the restaurant), rush out during shifts for missing supplies, endure work-related injuries with no compensation or sympathy from management, and fight to get their tips back after management confiscated them. The restaurant has become so understaffed that a single worker will have to serve 45-50 people at any given moment - and still get up to sing.
At any normal eatery, servers might take this as their cue to quit and find work elsewhere. But Ellen’s Stardust Diner is unique. The staff is tightly knit, and workers take pride in the business they’ve helped to improve. Even after being terminated, workers are fighting to save the restaurant’s tradition.
Meg Doherty-Scannell was #5 of the 13 people fired this week, but she’s not giving up on her colleagues. “If I leave, I leave my family behind,” she says. “They’ve been there for every major event in my life. I don’t know that if [management] offered me my job back, that I’d go back. But I want to fight for that magic for the customers – for the kids who come to New York City, that’s the place they want to go.”
Sonny Black, #11 to be fired, won’t be backing down. “Ultimately, it’s about our guests. We’re doing our guests a disservice,” he says. “The guests are being taken advantage of – [Ellen’s] was once was a tourist attraction. It’s becoming a tourist trap.
“They’ve pulled back the curtain, and they’ve killed Oz. The magic is gone.”
Many of Broadway’s biggest names are former Stardust employees. A number of stars have come forward to show their support for #WeAreStardust, including Nick Adams, Robin De Jesus, Titus Burgess, the cast of Broadway’s Les Miserables, and more.
Stardust Family United (a new union under the Industrial Workers of the World) is fighting to be heard. “[Sturm] has stated publicly that he wants to help us, and privately, he’s set out to destroy us one by one,” Black says. “I don’t think anyone is angry, I just think everyone is disappointed.”
“We want to be staffed properly. We’re being painted as greedy and spoiled, but as an owner – if you have employees saying we need more servers on the floor, that means less money for each individual. This [isn’t] about money. We want to care for our guests.”
In spite of mismanagement, discrimination, harassment and more, the workers of Stardust Family United know that the show must go on. “I have a story about Sonny [Black],” Meg grins. “One time, he was singing the most sensual version of ‘My Funny Valentine.’ While he was singing…this crazy street person came in and tried to pick a fight. There was no manager around, so Sonny continued singing the song while he forced the person from the restaurant.” She laughs. “I always felt safe with Sonny at work!”
The workers of Ellen’s Stardust Diner have made entertaining guests a priority, even at their own risk. But now that Sonny, Meg, and dozens of other servers have been forced out of their jobs, the future is uncertain. It remains unclear what Sturm’s true motives are, but his servers fear what could happen in the future.
“If [management] continues on the path they’re going, they’re going to tank their business,” Meg says. “6 months ago, one of our regulars came in. She walked in and looked at all of us, and said ‘everyone looks so sad.’ And that’s a very real thing.”
Today, the fate of Stardust Family United depends on the public.
“We started this union to improve working conditions,” says Miller. “We were trying to save our family and the Ellen’s Stardust Diner tradition…We want it to succeed.
“If you believe in our cause and want to help us, please reach out to the diner and express your concerns. We are genuinely hoping for cooperation with our owner. This union was made from love.”
Jenna, Sonny, Meg, Zech and others have risked everything to hold their employers accountable for mistreatment. As consumers, we have the power to help.
You can learn more about their mission on their public Facebook page. Users can also show their support on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag ‘#WeAreStardust.’
Fighting union-busters isn’t cheap; a fundraiser is now underway to help with legal fees. Supporters can comment, share and donate here: #WeAreStardust.
Special thanks to the members of Stardust Family United who have come forward for this story: Sonny Black, Meg Doherty-Scannell, Jenna Miller, Zech Azazi, Kristine Bogan, Lisa Kranz, and Brian Esposito.