ROC-United Co-Founder Saru Jayaraman

The Co-Founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center discusses the recent nationwide “Fight for $15” demonstrations, which was the largest protest by low-wage earners in American history.

Saru Jayaraman is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. After 9/11, she co-founded ROC in coordination with displaced World Trade Center workers in New York, to help restaurant workers to win workplace justice campaigns, conduct research and policy work, partner with responsible restaurants, and launch cooperatively-owned restaurants. The organization now has over 10,000 members in 19 cities nationwide. Saru is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She continues write and speak publicly about issues relating to low-wage work, labor standards, and food service. Her book, titled Behind the Kitchen Door, was published in 2013.


Tavis: This past week’s Fight for $15 demonstrations were the largest protests by low-wage workers in our nation’s history.

Joining us now to talk about the movements aims and to explain its importance in the broader fight for living wages in this country is Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, director of the Food and Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, and author of “Behind the Kitchen Door”. Saru, good to have you on this program.

Saru Jayaraman: Thanks. Great to be here.

Tavis: Everybody saw this. That is to say, we saw the news coverage of it, but what did we really witness? What happened?

Jayaraman: We are seeing workers in this country rise up in unprecedented numbers. I mean, we’re seeing rising inequality and we’re seeing rising expectations where people are finally saying enough is enough.

But this goes way back. I mean, the restaurant industry is the second largest and absolute fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy. And yet it happens to be the absolute lowest paying employer in the United States. Every year, the U.S. Department of Labor puts out a list of the 10 lowest paying jobs.

And every year seven of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America are restaurant jobs, the people who touch and serve and our food. And I’m actually not just talking about fast food workers. All restaurant workers in America earn poverty wages with very little benefits and this is the fastest growing industry.

So naturally, people have reached a kind of a boiling point where they’re saying, you know, these are the jobs that are available and they’re poverty wage and we can’t support our families.

Tavis: It’s the fastest growing industry because we eat so much in this country.

Jayaraman: Yes, that’s right.

Tavis: So help me understand the disconnect about why it is then that this is such a low paying field.

Jayaraman: It’s not only the fastest growing industry, Tavis. It’s actually one of the most profitable. So the chain restaurants on average, the average profit margin for chain restaurants in America is 4 to 5% which might sound small until you know that Walmart, which is generally considered one of the most profitable companies in the world, has a 1% profit margin.

So, yeah, how is it that the largest and one of the most profitable industries in America proliferates the absolute lowest paying jobs in America? It’s the power and influence of a trade lobby called the National Restaurant Association.

I know this will be of interest to you because even I found it out for research for my next book, which is that we call it the other NRA, the National Restaurant Association, and its power actually dates back to slavery times.

So tipping in this country actually originated in Europe. When it came to this country, there was a massive anti-tipping movement. In fact, the states of Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee all passed anti-tipping bans. They said it’s undemocratic. They said employers should pay their workers, not consumers.

And it was the restaurant industry and the Pullman train company, two industries, that squashed that movement and said we should have the right to hire newly freed slaves and not pay them anything and let them rely on customer tips.

And that practice has continued to this day when the federal minimum wage for tipped workers still in 2015 is $2.13 an hour. So here you’ve got an industry who, with fast food workers, gets away with paying abysmally low wages. $7.25 is the federal minimum wage for fast food workers.

And on the other half, in full-service restaurants, gets away with paying $2.13 an hour because of this legacy of slavery, basically arguing we should be the only industry on earth that shouldn’t have to pay our own workers’ wages. You, the customer, should pay our workers’ wages for us.

So in total, taxpayers are paying about $7 billion in public assistance for workers in fast food restaurants, and $9.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies for public assistance for full-service restaurant workers. These are tipped workers, waiters in Denny’s and IHOP and Appleby’s who just can’t afford to live.

Tavis: Tip O’Neill once famously said that all politics is local. I think we see that playing out now. But what’s your sense of why and how this Fight for $15 has become a local fight and not a national? I mean, it’s taken on national proportion…

Jayaraman: Absolutely.

Tavis: But why has it been rooted in places like Seattle–you know the cities better than I do. Why has it been so local?

Jayaraman: Because change needs to happen right now at the local and national level. Ultimately, we are going to need Congress to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and $2.13 an hour. Ultimately, we need Congress to do that, but Congress is fairly dysfunctional right now and we need to see change at the local and state level now.

Workers are suffering. Large cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York should be requiring employers to pay a lot more. So momentum is at the local and state level because we know that, over time, we can build up momentum to actually federal victory.

And we have seen cities pass $15. You know, Seattle, San Francisco, we’ve got a ballot measure moving in Washington, D.C. that’s going to actually raise the wage to $15 for all workers, tipped and non-tipped.

The minimum wage for tipped workers in our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. is right now $2.77 an hour. So we think all of this is going to change very soon and we think it’s going to be cities that are going to actually make the change.

Tavis: How long can big business fight this? And it’s really not just a question of how long they can fight this because I think it was Victor Hugo who once wrote, “There’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

So if Hugo was right, and I think he is, that the time for this idea has come, there’s only so much they can do to stop it as it continues to roll. So the question may not even be how long can they fight this, because they got deep pockets and Washington is bought and bossed by big money and big business.

So maybe my question isn’t how long they can fight it. Maybe the question is what is there to gain by them continuing to dig their heels in as this fight becomes more organic and this movement becomes more dynamic?

Jayaraman: There is nothing for them to gain and everything for them to win doing the right thing. So we’ve already seen a lot of them having to move in this direction because they’re being forced to by workers.

So Walmart announcing that it’s going to pay its workers $10 an hour, McDonalds announcing the same for a very small portion of its workers, and other companies deciding to do this on their own without being pushed.

So In-N-Out Burger is actually a chain restaurant company that already pays $13, $14, $15 an hour. Costco is a company that pays its workers very well and actually is doing better in California than Walmart.

The time has come, you’re right. Not only are workers saying enough is enough, consumers are saying we want to shop differently. We want to support companies that are doing the right thing. We’re seeing overwhelming consumer demand to support, in our case, restaurants that are taking what we call the high road to profitability.

We’ve got about 150 restaurant companies across the country. Most of them are small restaurants, some are larger, that are doing the right thing, providing living wages and good working conditions to their workers.

They formed an alternative national restaurant association that we call RAISE. One of them is Brian Parker in Michigan who owns a restaurant called Moo Cluck Moo, which is kind of an alternative to McDonalds. It’s got burgers, it’s got chicken, and it pays its workers $15 an hour.

And Brian has proved that you can have a fast food restaurant with good food and good wages and actually not just make a profit in spite of that, but make a profit because of that. Because you have less turnover, higher productivity, higher profitability among your workers.

Tavis: So politicians love to poll-test what they do. They put their finger to the wind and see how the public sentiment is blowing. I’m not naïve in asking this, but how long before the body politic, those elected officials in Washington, eventually figure out that this is the way this is blowing and that maybe we should step up and lead on this?

Because, again, they haven’t done it heretofore, so as always, it’s bottom up, it’s ground up. How much longer do you think before this starts to get some traction inside of Capitol Hill?

Jayaraman: It’s already happening. I mean, for example, November 2014. You know, overwhelmingly the country went red, but overwhelmingly red and blue, every state that had a minimum wage ballot on the ballot voted in favor of the minimum wage. Meaning people who voted for Republican candidates voted in favor of raising the minimum wage.

So I think that was a big signal to candidates across the country that, regardless of who their populace is, everybody believes corporations should be paying their workers livable wages. Everybody believes it’s time for the lowest paid workers to get a raise.

So we’re seeing this in Congress. Congress is actually–Patty Murray in the Senate and Bobby Scott in the House are actually introducing a bill later this month to raise the wage at the federal level to $12 and actually eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers.

And that is a long time in coming. Previously, these politicians said to us, “We’ll never be able to touch the minimum wage for tipped workers. The National Restaurant Association is too powerful.”

And now they’re talking about eliminating the lower wage for tipped workers altogether and talking about $12 and $13–it really should be $15 an hour, but we’re seeing a lot of progress in this direction because, finally, elected officials are seeing the time has come, as you said.

Tavis: So how do you hope–how do you expect that this issue is going to play itself out in the presidential campaign?

Jayaraman: Well, it’d be hard to ignore. There are 20 or 30 cities and states that are moving minimum wage ballots, legislation. This year, next year, in terms of–you know, now we finally have women candidates which is great.

This is a quintessential women’s issue. Not only are the majority of minimum wage workers in the United States women, a lot of them are mothers. I know among restaurant workers in particular, among tipped workers, 70% of tipped workers in America are women.

And one of the key issues that’s come out, in fact, it was covered in this weekend’s New York Times Sunday editorial, is that when you are a woman, a mother who lives on tips, you have to tolerate whatever a customer might do to you, however they may touch you or treat you or talk to you, which makes our industry have the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States.

Talk about a fast food worker who’s a mom who’s under the thumb of her manager and can’t do anything about his sexual harassment. Then you talk about a full-service worker who’s a tipped worker who lives off of tips and has to actually tolerate all kinds of sexual harassment not only from her manager, but also from customers.

This is a woman’s issue and, if our candidates don’t pick it up, it would not be very smart of them [laugh].

Tavis: We’ll leave it at that note. Memo to candidates! Be smart [laugh]. Saru, thank you for your work. It’s good to have you on this program.

Jayaraman: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 24, 2015 at 2:11 pm