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Listen Up, Foodies! Saru Jayaraman Thinks You Should Care as Much About Restaurant Workers as You Do Your Organic Chicken

An interview with the organizer of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

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I asked Jayaraman about ROC-United's outreach to different constituencies: food industry employees, customers and restaurant owners.

"Our whole frame is around collective prosperity, that when workers do better, employers and consumers do better," she said. "There's a role for each of these three stakeholders - for workers, employers and consumers - to work together to improve the industry for everybody in it."

"With the workers, we've now won over 13 workplace justice campaigns against large, high-profile restaurant companies, where we've actually changed workplace policies for thousands of workers," Jayaraman explained. "With employers, we've organized close to 100 responsible employers, high-road employers that are doing the right thing: providing good wages and good working conditions. With consumers, we've launched a multi-year, multimedia consumer engagement campaign to build a groundswell of support for the local and federal legislative policy changes that we want to see, particularly raising the minimum wage for tipped workers."

"I would say one of the most exciting, promising pieces of all of this is the fact that the food movement has been so explosive," she continued. "It has reached so many laypeople who would not typically think of themselves as activists or care about labor issues. There's phenomenal potential to reach a much wider audience of people, people who just care about what they eat and where they eat out."

"We put out a ROC National Diner's Guide, for example, with the minimum wage, paid sick days and promotions practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in America. And we created a smartphone app out of the guide. It allows consumers to know these things every time they eat out, to speak up every time they eat out, to send tweets every time they eat out, letting the employer know that they care about these issues."

"In these ways, like with my book, we're engaging foodies. We're getting people to view the connections between small farms and local sourcing and organics and the minimum wage and paid sick days."

To follow up, I was curious to hear about some more specific examples of how ROC-United has mobilized workers.

"Our most recent victory was against Mario Batali, who is considered to be probably the most famous chef in America," Jayaraman said. "He has a four-star restaurant in New York called Del Posto. We were approached by a group of bussers and runners from that restaurant, Latino and Bangladeshi employees."

"We ended up organizing 40 or 50 workers in that restaurant company. After a year-and-a-half campaign, Batali now has agreed to get rid of an abusive chef, create a new promotions policy and institute paid sick days for all his employees. This is a really big deal for workers in our industry. Batali is actually joining our High-Road Roundtable to promote a different way of doing business and to become a spokesperson on these issues."

Jayaraman added: "In other restaurants, we've won grievance procedures, job security, promotions, raises, paid sick days, vacation days, holiday time."

I also wanted to hear more about the consumer piece of the organizing, and I asked if ROC-United has called on people to boycott any restaurants.

"We generally don't do that," she responded. "Right now we have a campaign against Darden, which is the world's largest full-service restaurant company. It owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and the Capital Grille Steakhouse. The Capital Grille Steakhouse is the fine-dining segment of the company and that's where we've been organizing. We've organized workers in six or seven cities in Capital Grille Steakhouses and that's led to a larger campaign against the whole company."

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