Singing Waiters, Once Fired, Will Hit the Red Vinyl Stage Again

Singing Waiters, Once Fired, Will Hit the Red Vinyl Stage Again


A few weeks later, all three women were fired.

In all, a total of 31 waiters were fired in what became a bitter battle between management and workers as they sought to unionize.

In the fall of 2016, the workers took their complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, accusing management of union busting — doing things like surveilling them, preventing them from organizing on Facebook and threatening workers who took part in Stardust Family, all of which are covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Patrick McCarthy, a lawyer representing the restaurant, said the accusations were untrue. “The characterization of what happened is baseless,” he said. The workers were fired not for unionizing, he said, but for cause: Starting in July 2016, the management became aware of what he said was an elaborate scheme in which waiters overcharged for sodas and coffees, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the restaurant over time, according to information the company provided to the labor board.

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To the singing staff, the quirky diner was a haven where Broadway hopefuls did more than belt out show tunes on top of booths, several said in interviews.

Credit
Hilary Swift for The New York Times

“If you ask any employer in America, if they find out an employee is guilty of the conduct that was suspected here, what would they do?” Mr. McCarthy said. “They would uniformly say we would discharge the person. It’s as simple as stated in the Ten Commandments.”

The company hired an outside consultant to look into its suspicions, and in July, sent the findings to the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The district attorney’s office declined to say if it was investigating.

After investigating the workers’ claims, the board issued a complaint in April against the restaurant, authorizing a trial that was set for Tuesday.

But days before the trial was to begin, a settlement was reached. Waiters who wanted their jobs back could have them, one of the terms of a settlement reached among workers, the restaurant and the board that also entitles all the fired workers to back pay dating to when they were fired.

Of the 31 fired singers, 13 plan to return to Ellen’s, while the rest chose not to. The restaurant has not admitted to any wrongdoing, and the workers who return will have their disciplinary records at the restaurant expunged.

Nevertheless, the singing servers and their advocates are celebrating the outcome as their victory.

“They were basically completely vindicated,” said Marianne LeNabat, a organizer with Industrial Workers of the World, an umbrella union of which Stardust Family is a part. “These illegal terminations and setbacks have never stopped the organizing that has gone on inside that restaurant. The fact that they weren’t daunted by these firings is remarkable.”

As the fired singers and management squared off, inside the diner, the show has gone on. Replacement singers were hired, and many of them have now joined the union, said Adam Rennie, 30, one of the few longtime workers who hung on to his job. The new servers will keep their jobs.

For his part, Mr. Sturm sought to put the turbulence behind him. “Stardust has been a welcoming place in the heart of Times Square for employees, tourists and local patrons for over 30 years,’’ he said in an email. “We expect these 13 servers, who previously worked for Stardust, to fit in well into our supportive and inclusive work environment.’’

Kevin Ray, 47, a server of 11 years who was fired in September 2016, plans to put on his black apron, climb once again atop a red vinyl booth and sing.

His first number, he said, will be a pop ballad by the band Queen — “We Are the Champions.”



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