A showdown over race and discrimination is brewing at Atticus Bookstore and Café on Chapel Street.
In an announcement recently released to Atticus’s employees that opened with “Here we speak English,” the café’s management forbade employees from using foreign languages within earshot of customers. The policy, obtained by the News, further specified that employees could only speak Spanish in the prep and dishwasher areas.
The New Haven Workers Association, a group of local labor leaders and activists, condemned the policy as discriminatory Tuesday, as did Ward 15 Alderman Joseph Rodriguez on Thursday. Now the association and Rodriguez are demanding that Atticus repeal the policy and rehire a worker who they say was fired for challenging it.
But in a statement issued Thursday evening, Atticus’s management maintained that the policy was an “appropriate way to be most helpful to our customers.” The store’s management declined to comment further.
Deborah Malatesta, a member of the New Haven Workers Association, said she was first contacted about 10 days ago by two Atticus employees who complained that the English-only rule was racist and discriminatory.
“It’s discriminatory, outright,” Malatesta said in a phone interview Thursday night. “People shouldn’t be told what language to speak — employees should be given the same respect as patrons or owners.”
Malatesta said she had originally planned to bring up the issue at the association’s Tuesday night meeting. But when a Hispanic employee was fired on Monday, allegedly for challenging the policy, Malatesta said action became the focus of the Tuesday meeting.
So on Wednesday the association sent an e-mail criticizing the policy to community groups, including the New Haven Labor Council and Unidad Latino en Accion, which forwarded the message to several aldermen. Rodriguez, who represents Fair Haven, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, called Atticus’s decision divisive and troubling.
“I want the staff at Atticus to know that I stand with them in condemning the offensive tone and language used by the Atticus management,” he said in a statement released Thursday.
In a statement Thursday, Atticus owner Charles Negaro said he was sorry if news reports about the language policy had offended anyone. He said the policy’s purpose is to improve customer service, adding that Atticus offers free English lessons to all employees.
None of the half dozen customers interviewed at Atticus Thursday approved of the policy, calling it either discriminatory or “just plain ridiculous.”
Malatesta said the New Haven Workers Association and other opponents of the language policy are planning to stand outside Atticus at noon Saturday and distribute leaflets condemning the policy. Upon reading Atticus’ statement Thursday night, Malatesta said she was very surprised that Negaro had not backed down from the policy.
“Oh, wow,” she said as she read the statement. “We’re certainly going to continue organize against that.”
Atticus manager Jean Recapet told the News in October that the restaurant had 35 employees representing almost 10 countries and that 23 of his employees came from Hispanic countries.