By Michael Gioia
Management at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, the singing food joint that has become a Times Square staple among tourists and theatre fans, fired 15 more long-term employees, bringing the total number of singing servers fired since August 2016 to 31. According to a press release from the Stardust Family United union, employees received their notice via email, some while working their shift.
As previously reported by Playbill.com, the singing wait staff at Ellen’s unionized with Industrial Workers of the World in August 2016, citing unfair and sometimes unsafe working conditions. As tension escalated between staff and management, ten longtime employees were fired September 13 and 14 following the formation of Stardust Family United (SFU).
Owner Ken Sturm continues to terminate employees—on the heels of continued union organizing, including “many successful actions in the workplace,” according to the Stardusters—and SFU has called for a boycott until they are rehired and their concerns are addressed.
According to Stardust Family United, during the holiday season, management instituted new policies restricting song choices and forced staff to learn and rehearse new material on their own time without providing compensation. In response, SFU delivered a letter to management stating that servers would not learn the material without proper rehearsal time and pay. Management conceded and told employees they would not be disciplined for this action.
However, the lead organizer of this action was among those terminated.
In addition, owners Ellen and Ken Sturm were served with a class-action lawsuit targeting wage theft practices in the restaurant. Over 50 employees have signed onto the suit thus far, which addresses the manipulation of time cards to avoid paying overtime, illegal “tip out” requirements, and unlawfully withholding gratuities collected from large parties.
The release states that Sturm has called employees into his office, “trying to coerce statements by offering ‘amnesty’ in exchange for false testimony to impugn terminated employees, and threatening termination and arrest. Employees and their families have been harassed and threatened in anonymous text messages, and by strangers visiting them at home.”
In an email statement to Playbill.com, Sturm said, “This past week Ellen’s discontinued some employees for good business reasons. Any suggestion that anything about that decision was improperly motivated or not for good reasons is not true.
“Ellen’s respects the rights of its employees to engage in any legally protected activity.
“Despite some recent employee complaints about there being improper discharges or interference with the opportunity for employees to organize a union, there has never been a such a finding. In fact, the company has sought for four months to have the government hold an election to permit its employees to have their say on whether they want a union. But those complaining and claiming to speak for our employees have opposed any election, thereby both making their claims against Ellen’s not credible and denying the right of employees to choose. We think that is wrong.
“Ellen’s deeply respects its employees and provides fair treatment.”
Sturm has not responded to Playbill.com’s request for comment regarding the wage theft suit filed by the Stardust team.
On January 28 Stardust Family United will hold a large-scale, family-friendly musical protest from 4:30–7:30 PM, in which members and supporters of SFU will be outside singing songs and sharing information about their struggle for fairness.
SFU has been endorsed by George Miranda, president of Joint council 16 of the Teamsters, the Actor’s Equity Association, the Associated Musicians of Greater New York (Local 802 AFM), and the Office and Professional Employees International Union (Local 153), among others.
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