In some ways, it is an old idea: Workers in the same field, whether they be doctors in the American Medical Association or Windows on the World dishwashers joining something called the Restaurant Opportunities Center, banding together to improve their working conditions.
For doctors, improved conditions might mean higher reimbursements from health insurers. Dishwashers might want a minimum-wage increase and paid sick leave.
In other ways, it is a new twist on worker advocacy, related to the mission of labor unions, but in an age of declining union membership.
"I think it is the future of the labor movement," said Fabricio Rodriguez, co-coordinator of Philly ROC, the Philadelphia Restaurant Opportunities Center, which began in March and now has about 30 members. The group immediately joined the effort to pass a paid sick-leave law in Philadelphia.
Rodriguez could be described as a labor entrepreneur. He founded the union that now represents security guards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Next month, Philly ROC will begin classes to teach members the skills they need to move from low-paying kitchen work to higher-paid front-of-the-house jobs such as serving or bartending.
Classes will be free to Philly ROC members, who, if they are employed in the restaurant business, pay $5 monthly membership dues. Rodriguez and co-coordinator Andrea Lemoins, a former sous chef in various Stephen Starr restaurants, hope to also line up discounted medical and legal services for members.
In the lexicon of labor studies, organizations such as Philly ROC are known as worker centers. They are not tied to a specific employer, the way a union might be through a collective-bargaining contract.
Unions tend to represent restaurant workers in larger entities, such as Windows, which employed hundreds. But many restaurants have just a handful of employees.
"It's really tough for unions to organize these workplaces that are really small and where there's a lot of turnover," said Lonnie Golden, a professor of economic and labor studies at Pennsylvania State University's Abington campus.
"The alternative is to negotiate a floor for the whole occupation," he said.
That became the goal of Windows workers who survived the terrorist attacks.
Initially, the 350 surviving Windows employees, suddenly jobless, were helped by their union. But, after about six months, that assistance ended. After all, these workers were no longer employed in a union restaurant.
Instead Unite Here Local 100, helped them organize their own group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the organization that now runs Colors as a worker-owned restaurant.
The group protested when the former Windows owner tried to open a nonunion restaurant. After the news media picked up the story, the fledgling organization was flooded with calls from restaurant employees who wanted help with their work issues.
Then, in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blew away New Orleans' tourist industry, workers from there contacted New York's ROC to help them build a similar organization in the Big Easy.
Now there are ROCs in Washington and Detroit, among other cities. Funding comes from dues, from foundations, and in New York, from government workforce training grants. The national organization is bankrolling the Philadelphia operation for a few years.
"We decided to be a little more sophisticated, to have a national entity like the National Restaurant Association, which is always putting out studies that minimum wage is really fine as it is," said New York ROC codirector Sekou Siby, sitting in a back table at Colors this week.
Siby, an ex-Windows cook, would have been working on Sept. 11, but a coworker had asked him to switch days.
"We wanted to be able to do our own counterstudies," Siby said. "We needed to do our own research."
Many unions, including Siby's former union, conduct similar research. Why not simply affiliate with a union?
"I think collective bargaining is a good thing to some extent, but if you have a [low] union density," he said, "I don't think you are going to have much impact."
Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, email@example.com, or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.