By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Richard Siegel was hungry for lunch at Saigon Grill on Thursday, but when he rounded the corner and spotted about a dozen workers holding "Boycott Saigon Grill" signs outside the Vietnamese restaurant, he stopped dead in his tracks.
"I just won't cross a picket line," said Siegel, a 62-year-old retired public school teacher. "I was raised in New York City and I'm a labor person."
For other Upper West Siders, the question isn't so clear cut.
When Saigon Grill's workers spoke out against owners who mistreated them in 2008, local residents rallied around them. The workers prevailed, winning a $4.6 million settlement after a federal judge found that the restaurant's owners had violated labor laws, sometimes paying deliverymen less than $2 an hour.
But now that picketers are outside the restaurant once again, locals who thought the issued was settled said they're less gung-ho about supporting the protests.
"The first time around we were much more up in arms about it," said Elliott Cortez, who lives upstairs from Saigon Grill. He said he and his neighbors even joined the picket line in solidarity with the workers in 2008.
"We're not as sure about it this time," Cortez said, adding that he supported the workers, despite his doubts. "I don't eat here and I don't order delivery from here, but there's a question about what happened. Why is it being allowed to happen again? Why would they do it again if they got in so much trouble last time?"
Some Upper West Siders said they were unaware that Saigon Grill, on Amsterdam at 90th Street, had new owners. Others said they were puzzled when they saw picketing start up again.
The 318 Restaurant Workers' Union filed a complaint recently with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that Saigon Grill's new owners retaliated against workers who tried to unionize, manipulating their tips and changing their work schedules.
Workers have also accused the restaurant of age discrimination, saying that employees older than 40 were fired.
The restaurant's lawyer, Eric Su, denied the allegations. He said the business recently filed its own complaint against the union with the NLRB. Su said Saigon Grill was losing "thousands of dollars every day in revenue" because of the picket line.
Outside the restaurant Thursday, protesters handed out flyers and shouted "Boycott Saigon Grill!" One picketer spoke to a Saigon Grill customer who was smoking a cigarette outside, suggesting that he try eating at a Thai restaurant down the street instead.
Su said the union has refused to explain what it wanted from the restaurant.
"Our suspicion is that the union's motive is to control the restaurant's operations," Su said. "It's not really a worker rights dispute, it's really about the union wanting to exert certain control over the restaurant and we still don't know what that is."
Local resident Sam Street said he was skeptical about the new round of protests. "I feel for the people who are workers, but when it's an ongoing issue, it almost makes the union look a little bit like a bully. Are they wanting to run this person out of business as well?"
But Josephine Lee, an organizer with the worker's rights group Justice Will Be Served, said the union was anything but a bully.
"We don't want to be there," Lee said of the picket line. "It's unfortunate that we have to go back. I don't think anybody would choose to stand in the cold five days a week unless they felt it was really unjust."
Lee said community support was crucial to the workers' victory in 2008, and she was counting on Upper West Siders to come through again.
"If [the Saigon Grill owner] is allowed to get away with what he's doing, it's going to send a really bad message," Lee said. "If the community doesn't hold him accountable, a lot of the improvements that were made will be undermined and erased."
Michael Simon, a crime novelist who lives in the neighborhood, said he was confident locals would be proud to support to the restaurant's workers again.
"The Upper West Side has a long tradition of social consciousness," Simon said in an e-mail. "In situations like this, that means the people who live here stick by the people who work here. I'm not going to violate that principle just because I have a hankering for curry ga. Which I do."