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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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"But in that campaign, we're not asking people to stop eating there. We want people to go in and say things when they eat there, or even when they're passing by an Olive Garden or Red Lobster. We want them to engage in social media-type activity. We generally don't do boycotts because we feel like, in our industry, the more effective thing is to actually go in and speak up."

Jayaraman continued: "The reason for this is actually connected to the food movement. Over the course of our organizing in the food industry, we've seen an incredible thing. About five or six years ago, when Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, came out, and when Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemmacame out, a consumer-driven movement - totally unorganized - led to a radical transformation. [Fast Food Nation was published in 2001 and Omnivore's Dilemma in 2006.] Restaurants across America do now provide locally sourced, organic menu items. It was because consumers started asking if their food was local, if it was organic."

Jayaraman asked if I watched the show Portlandia. "There's an episode in that show where a couple goes into a restaurant and they are really obnoxious," she said. "They keep asking the server about the chicken: 'Is it locally-sourced? How is the chicken? How was it treated? Did it have friends?'"

"It's really funny, but sometimes we say, 'This is our dream.' If consumers would ask management those type of questions about working conditions, you would see a response. It would become trendy to provide paid sick days and do a little bit better by workers. This is an industry that follows trends."

"That's how we ended up launching a multi-year customer engagement campaign. It started in 2008 with us convening the Food Chain Workers Alliance, which is an alliance of worker organizations along the food chain. It reaches from farm workers all the way up to restaurant workers and grocery store workers. That alliance has been pivotal for bringing all of us together to speak to the food movement. We're saying, 'Sustainable food has to include sustainable working conditions.' There's no question about it."

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Amy Dean is a fellow at the Century Foundation and the principal of ABD Ventures, a firm that seeks to increase the organizational effectiveness of social change organizations. She co-authored, with David Reynolds, "A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement." Dean has worked for more than 20 years at the cross-section between labor and community-based organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via the Web site,

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