On Saturday night, October 10, workers from the chic Bywater bistro N7 went out and formed a picket line. A group of about a dozen, all masked, had gathered with signs at St. Claude Avenue and Montegut Street to air their grievances around issues of safety, fairness, and compensation at the restaurant — particularly employee and patron safety relative to the coronavirus.
While some of those present were supporters and friends, one of the striking employees said the group included “at least fifty percent of the front of the house,” meaning workers more visible to customers, like waitstaff and hosts. The strikers asked not to be named; it was their first night picketing and they were still hammering out their strategy and demands.
“We’ve attempted to have a legitimate conversation with the owners about how to operate this restaurant safely for the guests and the workers, and those attempts have been met with absolute silence,” a striker said.
N7’s owners, Yukiko Yamaguchi and Aaron C. Walker, previously ran the Frenchmen Street club Yuki Izakaya. N7 opened in 2015 as a sort of secret speakeasy culinarily centered on high-end canned fish from overseas. It’s since become a favorite of nearby Airbnb guests and those seeking an Instagrammable pastiche of “French bohemia” plopped lakeside of St. Claude Avenue. Its large enclosed patio, long a subject of praise from patrons, has allowed it to serve guests in open air even under COVID restrictions.
What pushed its employees into the streets was the alleged firing Saturday of a manager who, according to the strikers, prioritized health over profits. “There was an unlawful termination tonight,” a striker claimed, “and we just decided that if there’s no accountability on their part, while asking us to put our lives and bodies, our long-term lung capacity on the line, that was too much.” Eater asked owners for comment about this characterization of the firing, but have not received a response.
“We want protection,” the striker said. “We want protection from unlawful firings. We want health protection — a sick fund, a fund for testing, or ideally health insurance.”
The strikers also detailed frustrations around pay, which is allegedly based on a points system, the formula for which employees say is hidden from them. A striker told Eater, “They sort of introduced it to us back in February, pre-COVID, and then we’ve never had an explanation of it,” despite a promise of forthcoming information about the system, according to workers.
According to public records, N7 received between $150,000 - $300,000 dollars in coronavirus-related “Paycheck Protection Program” (PPP) funds.
“We have a food runner who works as hard as any of us,” the striker said. “We’ve been trying to get her pay equity for a while. We want race and gender equity. There’s been a lack of promotions in the past and intentional efforts to misgender either gender-nonconforming or trans people.” Another employee characterized this as part of a larger atmosphere of disrespect. “It’s not appropriate for guests to grab, touch, detain workers of any gender... and there has been lack of management support when those incidents happen.” Eater asked owners about the specific allegations, but have not received a response as of press time.
The employees have since started a strike fund and published their specific demands, including that “every customer wear a mask when entering the restaurant, speaking or engaging with staff or other diners, and when moving about the grounds of the restaurant regardless of that customer’s race, gender, class, or relationship to owners,” that management and owners enforce safety policies, and that staff be given hazard pay “for working in a crowded environment and engaging with customers who take their masks off while eating and drinking.”
The walk-off and strike, which one employee described as “largely a common tale of COVID safety,” is happening as restaurants and bars throughout New Orleans are struggling to find ways to do business under ever-changing and not always clearly enforced city mandates. The strikers were out again on Monday night and plan to picket this weekend as well. Part of their goal, the workers said, was to garner public support in hopes of winning concessions from the owners. One said that people sympathetic to the employees’ aims could contact the owners directly to express their unwillingness to patronize the restaurant until the strikers’ demands are met.
“Let them know that we’re doing this, and why,” a worker said. “All we’re asking for is an equitable workspace where we have some decision-making power over how our labor is used.”