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Low-Wage Workers Shame Greedy Restaurant Chains in Massive Protest

They blocked traffic in Washington in a day of economic justice protests.
 
 
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Darrin Browder, an organizer with Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) United from New Orleans, at Monday's economic justice protest in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson

 

Hundreds of low-income workers from around the country demanding better wages, benefits and an end to corporate greed blocked traffic in Washington on Monday morning to start of a day of protests, marches and lobbying Congress for economic justice.

The protesters marched along main thoroughfare Pennsylvania Avenue as they headed towards the Capitol, blocking traffic for several minutes at a time at busy locations along the Mall. The activists were in Washington, D.C., for the Rising Voices for A New Economy  conference, organized by National People’s Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Their coalition included groups like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), which is using the day to launch a new shaming  campaign against the corporate restaurant industry and its national lobbying group, The National Restaurant Association. NRA members are also in Washington for their annual convention and congressional lobbying day.

“It’s a shame that people get paid $2.13 an hour—that’s 213 pennies more than a slave was making an hour, and I come from a slave state,” said Darrin Browder, a New Orleans ROC organizer who held a sign saying “One Fair Wage,” to protest the 22-year-old federal minimum wage for tipped workers. “We’re the wealthiest country in the world. The problem is the whole economy itself. Poor people fuel the economy because wealthy people don’t spend anything.”

Browder said he came to Washington “because this is where change happens. We can’t do this anywhere else. We tried raising the minimum wage in Louisiana and it didn’t even leave [the legislative] committee… We want the federal government telling our state how it’s done.”

Dozens of small restaurants in Louisiana—not the corporate-run chains represented by the NRA—have raised the tip minimum to $5 an hour, he said, proving that it can be done and still be prosperous to business owners.

Carlos Romero, a 22-year-old ROC organizer who joined the group after he was unfairly fired from his job in Chicago, said that it was time to unmask who’s behind the NRA. “The NRA has this whole façade of representing mom and pop diners, but it’s big corporations that are behind them,” he said. “They’re part of a big machine, and we need to build awareness about that.”

“We’ve had a low minimum wage of $2.13 an hour for the past 22 years,” said Woong Chang, 32, a DC-based bartender and a ROC member since 2009. “Restaurant workers have no stability. [Restaurant owners] rely each day on customers subsidizing employees. This creates huge instability for the workers. Some months you can get by just fine, but some months you can’t even pay the rent. Most restaurant workers are poverty workers.”

The march stopped in front of the Capital Grille, which is owned by the world’s largest full-service restaurant corporation, Darden, which ROC has targeted for its unfair wage and benefits. Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization of Women, briefly spoke, saying the industry discriminated against its largely women workforce.

“Women are standing in solidarity with our sisters and brothers calling for one fair wage,” O’Neill said to cheers. “Restaurant workers today are disproportionately women. The NRA… is anti-women and we are going to help take them down if they do not change their ways.”

She then started chanting with the crowd joining, “Hey, hey NRA, how many kids did you starve today?” before the march continued to the Capitol.

“We’re fighting against $100 million lobbying operation that’s representing big corporations,” Chang said. “The fact that they have kept the [tipped] minimum wage at $2.13 an hour for 22 years is absurd. It makes you question the democratic system and the halls of Congress—that one industry could have that much power.”