HARRISBURG -- Labor activists using tactics adopted from the Occupy Wall Street movement are crashing restaurants across the nation in an effort to raise wages for workers -- and they're getting taxpayer money to help fund the effort.
Using a combination of federal grants and grants from left-leaning organizations, the Restaurant Opportunity Center, or ROC, is technically a charitable nonprofit and not a union.
But their pro-worker messages, anti-employer protests and self-proclaimed goal of organizing service sector employees for the purposes of negotiating higher wages make ROC look and sound much like a labor union.
Some see their tactics as a deliberate attempt to skirt the nation's labor laws. Only unions elected by a majority of a workplace can negotiate with employers on workers' behalf, though ROC seems to be doing so in the absence of any election.
But others, including the head of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for dozens of labor unions, see ROC and groups like them as the new face of labor organizing in America.
While the Restaurant Opportunity Center is working to increase wages for some workers, they are getting paid, in part, with federal tax dollars.
According to tax filings for ROC United, the parent organization that has launched the smaller chapters operating in many cities, the group got $180,000 in government grants during 2010 and another $60,000 in similar grants during 2011.
The organization's budget was about $1.72 million in 2010 and $2.65 million in 2011 -- meaning taxpayer dollars accounted for a little more than 5 percent of their operating costs.
Other funding for ROC's initiatives comes from liberal funders, including grants from the Tides Foundation, a group that also gets tax dollars from the federal government, as a previous Watchdog.org investigation uncovered.
Some Republican members of Congress are asking for an investigation into a Department of Labor grant to ROC.
The group employs disruptive "mic-check" tactics made popular by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Take ROC's July 25 action at the Capital Grille restaurant in midtown Manhattan.
On that day, during the usual lunch rush, a signal was given -- and more than a dozen protesters stood at their tables and shouted their concerns to all within earshot.
They were calling attention to what they said was an unfair minimum wage law that allows restaurants in New York City to pay their tipped workers only $5 per hour.
"Capital Grille, shame on you. Restaurant workers deserve fair pay, too," they chanted as they were escorted from the dining area.
At the same time, a similar group gathered outside an Olive Garden restaurant in center city Philadelphia. "If we don't get no justice, you don't get no peace," they chanted in unison.
Across the nation, minimum wage activists rallied outside Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille restaurants -- all of which are owned by the same parent company, Darden Inc. -- to decry corporate lobbying they say puts a lid on the minimum wage for restaurant workers.
But these supposedly grassroots efforts were in fact a well-orchestrated assault launched by ROC and labor union allies in several major cities. Other groups, such as the SEIU-backed Fast Food Forward, are working toward the same goal.
According to the group's website, ROC began targeting Darden restaurants because the company joins with the National Restaurant Association, to lobby Congress in order to keep wages and benefits low.
Darden Restaurants did not return calls seeking comment.
A similar effort targeting a chain of New York restaurants owned by chef Mario Batali came to an abrupt halt last year when Batali sought and received a restraining order against ROC.
Rather than unionizing a work place and using the collective bargaining process to negotiate with employers, groups like ROC use loud protests designed to attract public and media attention. They threaten lawsuits and disrupt business.
In short, they use techniques that would be illegal if they were an actual union, said Stefan Marculewicz, an attorney who specializes in labor issues.
"Labor organizations by their very existence are supposed to be democratic institutions," Marculewicz said. "A majority of the workers have to sign up, or they have the option to not sign up."
But ROC is not a union. And because they do not have to gain support from a majority of employees at a certain business -- as a union would before it could begin negotiating with employers -- groups like ROC can make their voices heard and their presence known without officially representing the workers they claim to support.
Maria Myotte, communications director for ROC, did not return calls and emails seeking comment on the organization's strategy. But in a 2007 interview with the New York Post, one of ROC's top officials described the practice as "minority unionism."
"While a union has to go in and organize the majority of a shop to get some kind of collective bargaining agreement, in our case we'll have a group of workers come in ... a small number from a restaurant, and we will 'organize' them to create a demand letter, eventually file litigation, protest in front of the restaurant and get press," said Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of ROC.
ROC started in New York City to provide community support to the families of restaurant workers killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now, they claim their goals include organizing workers "to create consequences for 'low road' restaurants that employ illegal and other exploitative workplace practices."
There are more than 200 groups like ROC across the country. They have names like Our Walmart, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and the Food Chain Workers Alliance. There are direct affiliates of ROC now operating in almost a dozen major cities.
And the group is attracting attention from some high-profile figures in the labor movement. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for dozens of major labor unions, praised Jayaraman and ROC in June during his comments at a gathering of the Labor Research Action Network in Washington, D.C.
"The Restaurant Opportunity Center has built a dynamic and expanding advocacy organization in an industry where 40 percent of the workers earn the minimum wage or less," he said. "Saru is a real pioneer who is demanding answers to the questions that need to be asked about the future of workers."
The AFL-CIO has entered into partnership agreements with several national networks of worker centers and created a procedure under which dozens of worker centers have affiliated with state federations of labor and central labor councils. Trumka said labor unions and work activists should try to "thicken those ties" in coming years.