NEW YORK CITY – Ellen’s Stardust Diner erupts with applause every few minutes as servers hit their impressive notes and serenade customers with musical numbers. The establishment, located at 1650 Broadway, provides a platform for aspiring performers to spotlight their talent. Last year alone, the diner lost 17 employees to Broadway productions.
Behind the curtain, employees of the diner have been fighting for better employment conditions. After the formation of an employee union and a lawsuit in fall of 2016, the atmosphere at the Stardust Diner is beginning to brighten.
“I can’t speak highly enough about being in a union, having that kind of safety and having so many people fighting for you,” says Stardust employee Matt Patterson.
According to the servers, several employees were fired after attempting to unionize last year, one of them being Patterson.
“The Stardust Family United is the reason I’m working here today. I was fired along with 32 other employees, some of them working here for over 10 years,” says Patterson. “We took them to court, we won, and without that, I would not have a job. I wouldn’t be able to provide for my family.”
According to an article in The Nation, the employees’ suffering increased after a change in management in 2016. Employee complaints included verbal abuse, health and safety violations, illegal workers’ compensation denials, arbitrary firings and theft.
Once the staff unionized, their working conditions began to improve. One major safety concern was their banquette, a center platform for their performances. The newly restored piece took place of a once-lopsided platform that caused several servers to fall and injure themselves.
The atmosphere at the establishment now appears fun, friendly and engaging as servers join in group numbers and interact in audience participation. The performers sing and dance to musical classics, new-age pop music and rock anthems while customers enjoy their meals.
Scott Barbarino, artistic director for 17 years, is optimistic about his staff’s future.
“This establishment brings an amazing opportunity for the staff to be able to survive in New York City long enough to follow their dreams and be discovered,” says Barbarino. “This particular place is very nurturing of our staff’s talent, and everyone is supportive of each other and their goals.”
When asked about unionization, Barbarino set out to clarify rumors.
“We are not unionized,” says Barbarino. “We had a group of people here who were not happy with conditions and wanted to see some changes. We worked with them to make those changes take place.”
Barbarino stresses the importance of communication in the entertainment industry. Without conversation, improvements would not have been made.
“We had to listen to each other. We have a good work environment now, better than it’s ever been,” says Barbarino.
Alexis Ebers, former secretary of Stardust Family United and server at the diner, says the staff has been happy with the changes.
“We’re pleased with the settlement that we were able to make with the diner. Of course there are still things that need to be worked on, including the betterment of the relationship between servers, the managers and the owners,” says Ebers.
Patterson agrees that there are improvements that still need to be made.
“We’re fighting for legal pay for the back of house and we’re still fighting for the 17 people who were fired who have not returned to the diner,” says Patterson.
“The fight’s not over. We’re still here, and there are a lot of things we want to make better,” says Ebers.
The server also explained the difficulties of the initial start-up, expressing her gratitude to the Industrial Workers of the World.
“They were the only place that got back to us. They really taught us how to mobilize ourselves, and it was empowering,” says Ebers.
Ebers encourages any other New York employees looking to form a union to contact the IWW or the Stardust Diner.
“For people who want to unionize in the area, reach out to us. We’d love to expand our reach to other restaurants,” says Ebers.
For those employees in New York City that have thought of unionizing like the Stardust, Patterson has a piece of advice: “Fight for what you believe is right.”