Food Fight 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.
MILOS BICANSKI/GETTY IMAGES
Kofi's lunch service was cut
Saturday, May. 03, 2003 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."