Wellstone Award Winner Saru Jayaraman: Empowering Restaurant Workers

Isaiah J. Poole

When restaurant workers around the country this year mounted strikes and demonstrations to push for higher wages, Saru Jayaraman and the organization she helped to create, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, were at the front lines with them, highlighting their plight and giving them a voice to challenge the lobbying muscle of business groups like the National Restaurant Association.

“I guarantee you in every restaurant in America there’s at least one person who’s on the verge of homelessness or being evicted or going through some kind of instability,” Jayaraman said in a 2013 interview with Bill Moyers. “It’s an incredible irony that the people who put food on our tables use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. Meaning that the people who put food on our tables can’t afford to put food on their own family’s tables.”

One reason for that is the utterly scandalous reality that the national minimum wage for so-called “tipped workers” is $2.13 an hour. It has not been raised since it was set in 1991. Every time Congress does manage to lift the basic minimum wage, the restaurant lobby succeeds in exempting tipped workers from the increase.

But as restaurant workers intensify their push for change, there are now eight states where there is no separate tipped minimum wage – among them California, Oregon and Washington – and a number of other states are being pressured to join them.

Saru Jayaraman’s groundbreaking advocacy on behalf of low-wage workers has earned her this year’s Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award from the Campaign for America’s Future. She will receive the award October 14 during the Celebrating America’s Future 2014 Awards Gala at the Arena Stage in Washington.

The award honors progressive leaders in the mold of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was dedicated to building up and encouraging grassroots leaders fighting on behalf of those who are left out and left behind.

Restaurant Workers Displaced By 9/11

Jayaraman, a graduate of Yale Law School, is the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She spoke on campus on October 2 about her transformation from a self-described “oblivious” restaurant patron to one who has made improving the lives of restaurant employees her life’s work.

It started in earnest, she said, with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when she began helping employees of the Windows of the World restaurant, which was at the top of one of the buildings.

Many of the restaurant workers were immigrants, and Jayaraman, then a 26-year-old first-generation Indian American, saw herself in their stories. According to a chronicle of the early days of Jayaraman’s work in Rinku Sen’s book “The Accidental American”, her parents moved to the United States in search of a better life and instead found financial struggle; her father was a computer technician who was nonetheless chronically underemployed, and her mother’s income as a part-time school aide ended up being the family’s chief source of income.

Jayaraman put the political activism she learned at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to work helping organize the displaced Windows workers. Restaurant Opportunities United was born out of those initial meetings. The group’s first target was a restaurant launched by former Windows managers that hired several of the white ex-Windows workers but none of the immigrants or people of color, fearing that they would want to unionize. After months of public marches and private meetings, the restaurant agreed to hire a number of the former Windows workers.

With that victory, Jayaraman and her organization was sought out by other restaurant workers who felt they were deprived of wages, and won a string of settlements. It was not long before ROC felt compelled to go national. Now with 13,000 members in 32 cities, ROC United has won $10 million in settlements against high-profile restaurants targeted for such abuses as not paying workers the wages they were owed.

Tyranny Of The Tipped Wage

In the 42 states that still have a lower tipped minimum wage, employers are supposed to give workers the difference between the tipped wage and the federal minimum wage (or, in a few states, a higher state minimum wage) if they don’t receive at least that much in tips. Restaurants are also covered by overtime laws. But, as Jayaraman repeatedly points out, workers are frequently stiffed. The results of Labor Department investigations back her up: As Mother Jones reported, “Between 2010 and 2012, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor conducted nearly 9,000 investigations in the restaurant industry, and discovered that 83.8 percent had some kind of wage and hour violation.”

Dependence on tips also leaves restaurant workers more susceptible to sexual harassment from both customers and restaurant managers, and more vulnerable to racial and gender discrimination. Jayaraman’s latest book, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” exposes the ugly underside of the restaurant industry’s treatment of low-wage workers and makes the case for a workers’ movement to transform the industry.

To help encourage that transformation, ROC United created The Welcome Table to “support great restaurants that treat people and the environment well throughout the food system.” The organization also has a guide and a smartphone app that highlights “high road” restaurants that pay workers a living wage and enables consumers to send a critical message to restaurants that do not.

Jayaraman told her listeners at Berkeley that the fight for low-wage workers is more than a fight over wages and benefits. “Are we a nation that is going to roll over and let corporations control our democracy and our economy, and even our bodies as women? Is this what we’re going to accept as a nation?”

Jayaraman has made it her life’s work to deliver a clear, resounding “no.” She has built an organization that is empowering people at the bottom of the economic ladder and showing an industry how it can transform itself into one in which workers as well as customers are well served.

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