LAST SEPT. 11, a small group gathered at Colors restaurant in New York City. A Peters world map dominated the south wall, showing Africa in all its hugeness. Chairs were lined up in the dining room, facing east toward an altar holding white roses in silver pitchers. An older white woman wore an FDNY T-shirt. A red-haired Latina sat in the second row, crying steadily. Names were read; candles were lit. A little girl sang "Tears in Heaven," off-key and proudly.
The people assembled were the workers from Windows on the World, the luxury restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. They have always hosted their own events to commemorate Sept. 11, disenchanted with the chest-thumping that marked official ceremonies. This was their first memorial in the cooperative restaurant they had started, with the organization they founded, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY).
The restaurant had been the idea of Fekkak Mamdouh, and on this morning, he did whatever was needed. He carried scrambled eggs out to the bar. He sold T-shirts. He ran the program and gave an inspiring speech. But he wasn't the restaurant's manager. This man's days in customer service ended five years ago.
Immediately after he learned of the attacks on that infamous morning, Mamdouh went to his union, Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (now UNITE/HERE). After listing everyone who would have been working that morning, teams set off to search for colleagues. For five days, Mamdouh, a 45-year-old Moroccan, circled the lobby of the city morgue. Each evening, searchers updated the lists. In the end, 73 people who had worked at Windows had perished.
Mamdouh has a sweet face with wide brown eyes and round cheeks that give him a look of disarming innocence. That mellow visage hides the toughness that made him the Windows shop steward of choice, even outside his unit. Haitian sous chef Jean Emy Pierre, who goes by JP, recalled Mamdouh in the kitchen daily berating the chefs for mistreating busers and waiters. "He didn't take no crap from nobody," said JP, who is known for his own grumpiness. "He would defend all the guys who couldn't defend themselves."
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Local 100 hired Mamdouh and two Windows coworkers to staff the Immigrant Workers Assistance Alliance (IWAA). Mamdouh transferred all he knew about getting concessions from management to pressuring the Red Cross and FEMA.
With foundation money to support Windows workers, the union began exploring the possibility of setting up a community-based organization that would supplement its own structure. New York City's 16,000 restaurants employ 165,000 people, 70 percent of whom are immigrant. Local 100's membership had shrunk from 50,000 in the mid-1970s to 6,000 by 2001, in the wake of a corruption clean-up at HERE.
Seeking someone to start the new organization, the union approached 26-year-old Saru Jayaraman, who had recently left a Latino workers' center. Jayaraman didn't call back for weeks, uninterested in working for a union. Eventually, though, she agreed to meet the IWAA staff, who impressed her with their diversity and kindness. In April 2002, the team set up shop.
On day one, Jayaraman asked Mamdouh what he thought this new organization would do. Mamdouh replied that they would continue getting people jobs and cash to get through hard times.
Jayaraman began to talk about organizing as the only way for people to get enough power to change their situations. "This is a horrible thing that's happened," she said. "But there's opportunity here too, to do something good with other immigrant workers."
Mamdouh wondered how they could organize people who couldn't even pay the rent. To him, power meant being able to pay your own rent.
"That's the best time to organize," she replied.
Mamdouh had intended to go into computer networking after the IWAA. But he hadn't yet taken the exam, and he was otherwise unemployed. He was curious about this young Indian American woman with the dramatic eyes who spoke fluent Spanish. He decided to stick around and see what broke. Had she not entered the picture, he said, "I would have done one month, two months, doing service things, then said let me find a job like everybody else."
Mamdouh grew up poor in Morocco, the fourth of nine children. He revealed an enterprising personality by the age of 14, when he started buying and selling used clothing. By 17, he'd opened the first bank account in his family.
In the early 1980s, Mamdouh's elder brother Hassan moved to Saudi Arabia to work for the royal family. In his early 20s, Mamdouh followed to become a companion to a 9-year-old prince. In 1989, he accompanied the family to Florida. After a month playing in Orlando's theme parks, Mamdouh asked for his passport to visit Hassan, who had moved to New York. His boss, a princess, refused, sure that Mamdouh would run, so he got the passport from her...