Just two weeks after unionizing with Industrial Workers of the World, citing unfair and sometimes unsafe working conditions, the singing wait staff of Ellen’s Stardust Diner ceased singing.
Only background music was heard in the diner throughout the morning and afternoon of September 14 as the wait staff united to retaliate against recent firings of longtime employees and the posting of “anti-union propaganda” within the restaurant.
In an August 29 letter shared with Playbill.com, signed by the Ellen’s Stardust Diner Family, it was alleged that “we bust our butts to provide the optimal guest experience for people from all over the globe, and we are being bullied, sexually harassed, and abused by our higher-ups....”
The letter singled out several recently-hired managers by name and said, “They bully us, intimidate us, mock us, de-value us, and treat us as if they are dictators of their own country and we are insipid little actors and restaurant employees that deserve to be mistreated.”
Employees said safety concerns were key to their unionizing, citing an electrical issue with a refrigerator that was causing bartenders to shock themselves, grill fires in the kitchen and a faulty seating banquette in the middle of the dining room that posed a danger to the staff during performances.
They claim that management failed to act on recent safety issues that were raised, but did note that Stardust management never required them to perform on top of the banquette.
In a September 14 email response to Playbill.com, Stardust Diner owner Ken Sturm said he was looking into the specific issues cited above, adding that “The safety of our staff is very important, as we’ve made more than $80,000 in upgrades and improvements to the restaurant, with our staff in mind.”
However, tensions escalated over the past two weeks, with ten longtime singing staff members being fired September 13 and 14.
Among them are Kristine Bogan, an employee of seven years, who said she unionized along with over 50 other dues-paying members to form Stardust Family United under the umbrella of the international labor union Industrial Workers of the World.
Bogan stood outside the diner Wednesday afternoon with a small, but defiant group of Stardust employees in a show of solidarity with their co-workers who were silently protesting within the restaurant while still working the lunch-hour shift. Tourists stopped to read the picket signs.
As of 3:20 PM, Stardust management placed a sign on the doors stating that the restaurant was closed to the public for a private event.
Staff members informed Playbill.com that Sturm, along with the diner’s management team, called a surprise all-staff meeting in the downstairs Iridium Lounge (the music venue also owned and operated by the Sturm family).
Minutes prior to the meeting, remaining lunchtime staffers performed (for the first time Wednesday) to an empty restaurant, singing, “We are the people, we sing as one!”
Downstairs, employees said that they were being taken into private meetings where they were being fired individually. As of 4 PM, four additional employees had been fired. Several took to social media to share the news.
The staff performs to an empty dining room September 14. Fired staff member Sinclair Mitchell can be seen being escorted out by management at the conclusion.
In the weeks leading up to the latest firings, Stardust staffers said they had been taken into meetings with diner management and Brent Yessin, an anti-union consultant and litigator who has been involved in several national labor cases. The wait staff claims that diner management sat behind them during the meetings while Yessin encouraged them not to join Stardust Family United.
“They brought in union busters, and before I had a chance to even hear about Stardust United, I was pulled downstairs by management and told, ‘Don’t join the union,’” current Stardust employee Samuel Ladd told Playbill.com. Ladd stated that he had not officially joined the union, but feared that his job was in jeopardy. “They said that [joining the union] would take money out of our paychecks for dues and then showed us benefits we receive now that could be taken away because of negotiations and then having to vote.”
Staffers also shared photos of anti-union posters that began popping up around the diner in recent weeks.
Sturm’s email response stated that all of the meetings and discussions with the staff “were perfectly appropriate and routine in situations like this and are allowed under federal labor laws.” He added, “Like all employers, we at times terminate employees for any number of reasons. We want to be clear that these recent terminations were for valid reasons and have absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s union activity.”
Stardust Family United members also claim that management filmed them during a September 2 union protest outside the diner and that management had, “falsely accused employees of misconduct as a pretext for retaliatory termination.”
Citing ongoing litigation, neither party would disclose specific reasons individuals had been terminated.
In the past several days new staffers have been quietly trained to replace terminated employees. Longtime waiters said that the latest group of singing wait staff have been seated at tables during their shifts, dressed in uniforms and ready to take over when other members are fired.
Bianca DiSarro, a Stardust employee of three-and-a-half years, was fired at the beginning of her shift on September 13. “I feel like I’ve been a model employee my entire time here. I feel hurt and disrespected,” she said. “What they failed to understand is that the entertainment community is one big family, and that’s something they can’t take away. That’s why we all are here.”
Numerous Stardust employees go on to enjoy careers on Broadway, many of whom have expressed their support of the current singing staffers on social media.
The Broadway casts of Beautiful, Cats, Les Misérables and Paramour, as well as actors such as Tituss Burgess, two-time Tony Award nominee Robin De Jesus and Nick Adams are among those who have posted videos in solidarity with the staff.
All of the Stardust employees interviewed spoke of the closeness among the front-of-house staff, something they state was perceived as a threat when new management took over nine months ago.
“We want the best for this restaurant, but people aren’t coming here for the food or the stellar management, they’re coming here and have come here for years for the singing wait staff and we care about that,” Ladd said. “It’s our reputation, too. These singing waiters for years have gotten you where you are, and this is how you treat them?
“There are people who are married to each other, have kids together, have met here. So many couples are engaged,” Ladd continued. “People are in each other’s weddings, many of us live together. Here is different. New management came in and said, ‘This is like every other restaurant in the world.’ No, it’s not. We are in the middle of Times Square, we are singing on the banquettes, running around the restaurant and we’re all artists. That takes it to another level. You want to call us dramatic and act like we’re spoiled? We are artists, and if you don’t know how to deal with artists, maybe this isn’t the restaurant for you. Maybe you shouldn’t be owning a restaurant that operates off the work of artists.”
Sturm also weighed in regarding a shift in management at the diner. “For years we had a relaxed approach to managing the restaurant,” he said via email. “But we realized more recently from feedback and observation that we needed to operate more efficiently to better serve our customers, so we made adjustments. Better organizing our staffing assignments and expectations may well have been disfavored by some of our servers. Nonetheless, we have to run a restaurant and serve our customers, and our customers are our top priority.”
A group of tourists from Allentown, PA, who ate at Ellen’s Stardust Diner during the September 14 silent protest said they were made aware of the labor issues by their waitress during the lunch rush. “The atmosphere was alright, but we didn’t come for the food, we came for the entertainment,” one member said.
By dinner time, service and performances at the diner had resumed.
When asked why she felt compelled to unionize, DiSarro said, “I hope that conditions get better in that diner. That’s all I ever wanted. I want the people that are still working there to thrive.”
Many of the fired employees hoped that their firing from Ellen’s Stardust Diner was putting them back on the road toward their artistry.
DiSarro was positive about what was next for her. “Hopefully booking a show. Things happen for a reason, maybe it was meant for me not to be working here,” she said.
This is a developing story, and Playbill.com will continue to update.