Workers Tell Congress: No Wage That “Keeps Us … Working As Slaves”

In addition to being the day hundreds of thousands of workers participated in “Fight for $15” strikes around the nation and the world to call for better pay for low-wage workers, Wednesday was also lobby day for the National Restaurant Association, which had its representatives on Capitol Hill to oppose legislation that would meet the demands of the strikers.

Robin Law was also on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, and she had a question for both the lawmakers and the lobbyists.

Law is a single mother who works for a fast-food chain. “Our company makes lots of money,” she said into a microphone in a congressional hearing room. “However, I only make 8.50 an hour, no benefits after eight years… As a single mom, it’s tough to give your son everything he wants. How can you tell your son, ‘I can’t buy you a new pair of shoes because I have to pay rent?'”

Law was invited to speak before a panel organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus to dramatize the plight of low-wage workers and to highlight businesses that are actually trying to do right by their workers.

“Today tens of thousands of people of more than 200 cities are standing together calling for $15 and the right to form a union, and this isn’t too much to ask from corporations booking huge profits,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the caucus.

“I think people feel like a living wage, a good union wage, is so 20th century somehow,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

Recently, McDonald’s and Walmart have begrudgingly raised wages modestly for some of their workers due to grassroots actions like the ones conducted Wednesday. But that is little comfort to Luis Chilinquinga, a McDonald’s worker at the Smithsonian Institution. He told the panel that receives no paid time off, insurance, or sick days. “We want a living wage, not a wage that keeps us in poverty working as slaves,” Chilinquinga said. McDonald’s profits off the hard labor of its workers, but they don’t give back to the people responsible for the corporation’s success. According to Chilinquinga, “Simply stated, this is unjust and unfair.”

But there are restaurants that have rejected the low-pay model of much of the industry. Ji Hye Kim, a partner at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor and member of Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE) is an employer who believes in offering employees fair wages and benefits. She has experience as a waitress because, as an immigrant and a woman of color, this was her only viable option. “I hear statistics like 66 percent of the servers are women and especially women of color are disadvantaged. The tipped workers live in poverty near three times the rate of workers as a whole” said Kim. She is grateful to not be another statistic.

Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center and organizer forRestaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), said there are 150 employer members across the country who in Jayaraman’s words take “the high road to profitability.” “Their extraordinary work,” said Jayaraman, is “actually taking good care of their employees.”

Race and gender are the two most important factors in workers being able to obtain a livable wage over the course of their career, Jayaraman said. Twenty percent of jobs in the food industry are livable wage jobs and, according to Jayaraman, “they’re held almost exclusively by white men. Workers of color are segregated into lower segments, meaning fast food and casual rather than fine dining and in terms of position. If you walk into any fine dining here in Washington, D.C., you are likely to see white people as servers and people of color as bussers, and the further and further you go into the back of the house, literally the darker the skin color is going to get.”

These major restaurant corporations are also costing Americans billions in tax dollars. According to Jayaraman, “Americans spend 9.5 billion dollars annually on public assistance for full service restaurant workers.” Because of the extremely low wages food service workers, especially tipped service workers make with the federal tipped minimum wage at $2.13 an hour, half of all restaurant workers in the U.S. are on public assistance. “In fact servers use public assistance at 3 times the rate of the rest of the US workforce.”

Jayaraman considers the National Restaurant Association to be directly responsible for the injustices these workers face. They are the tenth most powerful lobbying group in Congress and the most powerful employer trade group in the world, and they have kept the restaurant business the lowest paying employer in the U.S. “The restaurant industry is the second largest and absolute fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy” said Jayaraman. One in 12 Americans work in the restaurant business, which has major implications for American poverty rates.

As the Progressive Caucus panel was about to begin, Zach Lesher, an activist and volunteer researcher for ROC, was at Freedom Plaza blocking the NRA lobbyists’ buses from leaving. According to Lesher, “We were able to stop them from leaving. We stopped their buses three separate times and we successfully ended their lobbying day.”

“The National Restaurant Association spends millions of dollars to stop minimum wage increases, and since we’re about to start that campaign in DC, where the restaurant industry is huge and highly profitable, we fully expect them to do the same thing. We don’t have the kind of money they have, but we have the willingness and capacity to pull off the kind of action that we did yesterday,” Lesher said.

Watch a full video of the Congressional Progressive Caucus forum, “A Good Jobs Strategy for the Low- Wage Economy,” here. Take action with ROC here and Good Jobs Nation here.

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