By Chris Lewis
April 23, 2013
Caption : ROC United's Saru Jayaraman lays out a vision for 21st Century labor organizing.      

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Food service has long been a rite of passage for young people entering the labor force. But for 10 million Americans of all ages, these jobs—with their meager wages and no benefits—are the only way to make ends meet.

The industry’s working conditions are an unflattering reflection on America’s shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is trying to change that, and they are bucking the traditional labor organizing methods that brought gains to workers in the industrial era. Campus Progress caught up with Saru Jayaraman, ROC United co-director and one of our 13 Women Of Color To Watch In 2013, to learn more.

Campus Progress: Why should people—and especially young people—be concerned about working conditions in the restaurant industry?

Saru Jayaraman: The restaurant industry right now is the largest and fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, so it is restaurant jobs that a lot of young people are going into. We’ve got the largest sector of the economy proliferating the lowest paying jobs—literally. It drives down wages for everyone in the entire economy because it sets a really low floor. The National Restaurant Association is the biggest advocate for keeping the minimum wage where it is, and so that affects all industries.

The other reason young people should care is because young people eat out. It impacts our health when restaurant workers can’t afford to take a day off when they’re sick or are told they’d be fired when they take a day off if they’re sick. And because young people I’m sure have friends and relatives in the industry—almost every person does.

What are the big goals you are trying to achieve right now, and what’s your strategy for achieving them?

The three big priority areas for us right now are increasing wages, winning paid sick days, and also segregation by race and gender in the industry. We’re attacking that through this campaign against Darden, which is Olive Garden, Red Lobster, The Capital Grille, LongHorn Steakhouse. Darden is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company and sets the standard on all three of these issues.

Is it fair to say you have many of the same objectives as a labor union? And if so, why not create a labor union?

Well we certainly share the objective of improving wages and working conditions for workers. But our strategy is engaging not just workers but multiple stakeholders—workers, high road employers, and consumers—to win changes in the workplace. We feel like we have the same mission in some ways, but very different strategy and tactics.

Our membership is open to any and all restaurant workers, any and all employers who want to do the right thing, and any and all consumers, whereas union membership is limited to the workers who are engaged in a particular struggle.

Our goal is really about transforming an industry, and so to transform an industry you have to engage all the stakeholders. And in particular in the restaurant industry, there’s such fluidity between workers, employers, and consumers. Restaurant workers are also consumers, and many employers are former restaurant workers and go in and out of actually working in the industry.

It seems like there are a lot of intersections between your work and the work of other social justice movements. Are there any alliances that you have right now?

Absolutely. We have been working very closely with national women’s organizations to lift up gender inequality in the restaurant industry. We’ve been working with lots of civil rights and racial justice organizations to work on racial segregation in the industry. And certainly, we’ve been working very hard to partner as closely as possible with the food movement, and the environmental movement is very much a part of that.

All three of those are very core movements that we feel ourselves to be part of. That’s what’s also unique and makes us a little different from unions. We don’t see ourselves as only part of the labor movement, we see ourselves as sitting in the intersection between labor, food justice, racial justice and gender justice.

For young people looking to make a difference in the food service industry, what can they do?

We would love to partner with students around the country who want to build campus chapters or do student organizing in support of ROC, in particular in our campaign against Darden. Help to do actions on the restaurant, petition the restaurant, do creative things like going to the restaurant and really bugging the management.

There are all kinds of things that students can be a part of in terms of getting this company to do the right thing: pay more than $2.13 an hour and provide paid sick days, because they really are the largest vocal moneyed advocate against those things. If they did the right thing, it would have so many reverberations throughout the industry.

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