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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

There's little question that the vast majority of restaurant workers in the United States could use a union. On the whole, their jobs offer low pay and few benefits and employees have little job security. Yet they are also a very difficult group to organize: turnover in the industry is high, the workforce is largely an immigrant one, and employers effectively use threats of deportation and other retaliation against those who speak up.

Over the past decade, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, now a national organization known as ROC-United, has taken on these challenges. While not a union, ROC-United has brought together 10,000 restaurant workers into an advocacy organization devoted to improving wages and working conditions. In recent years, ROC has expanded beyond New York City and launched affiliates in New Orleans, Miami, Michigan, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington DC. The organization has deployed a diverse arsenal of tactics - community and workplace mobilization, lawsuits against discrimination and wage theft, high-profile research and reports on the industry, and partnerships with "high road" restaurant owners - to advance the interests of low-wage workers who have been largely beyond the reach of the traditional labor movement.

Recently, I spoke with ROC-United's co-founder and co-director, Saru Jayaraman, about how it has been able to use its status as an advocacy organization to develop fresh approaches to defending workers' rights and building alliances in the community. Next month will see the release of Jayaraman's first book,  Behind the Kitchen Door, which challenges foodies who demand organic, fair-trade and free-range ingredients in their food to pay just as much attention to the people who do the majority of the work in the restaurants we patronize.

I started by asking Jayaraman about her background and about how ROC got started.

"My background is that I am a child of immigrants from India," she said. "I grew up in California, then ended up going back East for law school and graduate school, and I got more and more engaged in immigrant worker issues. Ultimately, after 9/11, I received a phone call from the union that was in Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. They asked if I would start an organization that would initially support the workers who had lost their jobs and the families of the victims."

"We started in those early days just helping people get back on their feet. But something happened very shortly after the tragedy, which is that the owner of Windows opened up a new restaurant in Times Square, refused to hire any of his former employees from Windows. The workers felt a lot of moral outrage at that. We organized a protest in front of the new restaurant on opening night. The owner ended up hiring everybody who wanted to work there. That was in 2002."

"It was on the cover of the Metro Section of the New York Times and got a bunch of other press. Instantly, we were overwhelmed, flooded with calls for help from workers, first all over New York City and then all over thWe country."

Jayaraman discussed the conditions in the restaurant industry that soon came to the fore: "We did some research early on, in those early days," she said, "and we found that the restaurant industry really is neck-and-neck with retail as the nation's largest private-sector employer. It has over 10 million workers. An estimated 1 in 10 American workers are employed in the restaurant industry. It's been one of the fastest growing [sectors of the economy], even during the economic crisis. But it also has 7 of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America. Actually, the two absolute lowest-paying jobs in America are restaurant jobs: fast food cooks and dishwashers. Largely due to the power of the National Restaurant Association, which has been named the tenth-most-powerful lobbying group in Congress, the minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13 at the federal level for the last 21 years."

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