Citizen Action Monitor

The incredible Saru Jayaraman – dynamite activist with few equals

Ms Jayaraman is taking on the US food industry in a knock-down, drag-out fight for a living wage for food workers

No 1027 Posted by fw, April 7, 2014

LOOK! LISTEN! LEARN! from activist extraordinaire Saru Jayaraman. Saru is no mere mortal. She’s a tiger. A dynamo. Clone her, I say. She’s a role model for all activists, setting a standard of excellence that will inspire the best from the rest of us.

Here’s a thumbnail profile of Saru’s knowledge and skills —

    • Saru Jayaraman

      Saru Jayaraman

      Brainy – graduated Yale Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

    • Articulate – for evidence of her speaking skills just watch the video below. Polished presentation with masterful command of facts
    • Leader — brilliant grassroots organizer, co-founder, co-director of ROC-UNITED, organization of restaurant workers, employers who support living wages for workers, and supportive consumers, united in the cause to raise wages and standards in the restaurant industry
    • Researcher – integrates empirical evidence with activism. Director of Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center the first academic institution anywhere in the country to focus on the intersection between food and labor issues in the U.S. and abroad
    • Strategist – employs multifaceted counterpower stratagems to expose and skewer opponents
    • Irrepressible – “There’s nothing people can’t achieve once they expose and resist the moneyed forces that control the system”
    • Inspired and inspiring – draws inspiration from her immigrant parents. “I just knew that I couldn’t live in a world where millions of people are hungry and don’t feel like they get respect on the job for jobs that are hard.”
    • Author – her book, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Every Diner Should Know about the People Who Feed You, blending personal narrative and investigative journalism, explores political, economic, and moral implications of dining out.

Isn’t it time for more think tanks, NGOs and activists to follow Saru’s lead? — drag yourselves away from your smartphones and keyboards and join the foot soldiers on the front lines.

To see Saru at her best, watch the embedded 26:46-minute interview below. The abridged transcript following the video includes subheadings that highlight Saru’s dazzling display of counterpower talents and tools. Alternatively, to watch the interview on Moyers & Company’s website, and access the complete transcript, click on the following linked title.

All Work and No Pay, Saru Jayaraman interviewed by Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company, April 4, 2014


Saru Jayaraman — How is it that a major industry has basically convinced America, convinced Congress, that they practically shouldn’t have to pay their workers at all? It’s purely money and power. And their control over our legislators.

Tactician Jayaraman’s opponents unable to blunt ROC-UNITED’s “$2.13 an hour” revelation

The truth is that Richard Berman [referred to in the video as Dr. Evil, and called a “one-man goon squad”] has been following us around for the last decade, trying to shut us down on behalf of the National Restaurant Association [the other NRA]. What has happened over the last year is that they’ve definitely heated up the pressure, trying to kill our message, whatever way they can. And his operation, his M.O., is to do it by killing the messenger rather than the message, because the truth is, it’s very hard to argue with a message of “nobody should be earning $2.13 an hour.” That’s as fundamental as it is.

Researcher Jayaraman exposed Berman’s and the NRA’s dirty little secret – customers, not the industry, are paying workers’ wages

The harder they try to call us names, the more I think it’s realized that we’re saying something that’s getting on their nerves, something that they don’t want to be heard. And that something is that they as an industry have gotten away now for decades saying that they shouldn’t have to pay their own workers’ wages. In fact, we, the customer, should pay their workers’ wages for them. Because when you’ve [Berman and NR] lobbied for a wage as low as $2.13 an hour, these workers actually aren’t receiving wages at all.

And they’re living completely off their tips. Which means literally, we as customers are paying their wages, not the employer. And the Restaurant Association ultimately does not want people to know that they’ve gotten away with this immense boondoggle.

Articulate Jayaraman shred NRA’s argument for keeping food industry wages low

Well, these are their two primary arguments: one, that it will kill jobs, two, that it will make the cost of food go up. So on that first one, killing jobs. There are actually seven states in the United States that have the same wage for tipped and non-tipped workers. They range from somewhere around $8.00 and $9.50 an hour. You can go to California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota. All seven states have faster industry growth rates than the restaurant industry nationally. And in fact, we recently did a regression, looked at the states with the higher minimum wages for tipped workers, we found that they have higher sales per capita in the restaurant industry. So we would argue that evidence shows that you could actually do better as an industry, faster industry growth, more jobs, if you treat your workers better.

On that second argument that the cost of food will go up. We used USDA methodology. And we applied the current bill that’s moving through Congress to every worker along the food chain, from farm workers, to meat and poultry processing workers, to restaurant workers. And we assume that every employer along the food chain would pass on 100 percent of the cost of the wage increase to their purchaser. The title of the report is A Dime a Day, because it would cost the average American household at most $0.10 more for all food bought outside the home. That’s groceries and restaurants alike. So we’re talking pennies more on your hamburger when you eat out, for 30 million workers to come out of poverty.

To small business owners, researcher Jayaraman argues that paying low wages is a false economy, resulting in costly high staff turnover

I would say a couple of things. First of all, you as a small business, you are actually being cheated by these very large corporations that are running the show, setting the standards, raking in millions of profits and screwing you by getting away with very– you know– very, very large, high-volume business and setting standards that require you to have to pay for very high rates of turnover. Our industry has the highest rates of employee turnover of any industry in the United States. I would say– I can point you to plenty of small businesses around the country that actually pay their workers a livable wage and have managed to cut their turnover in half, in some cases, completely out, because they treat their workers well.

I would also say that nobody’s expecting you to change your wages overnight. We’re talking about policies that would phase in a minimum wage increase. A minimum wage increase for both your servers and the back of the house. But the last and most important thing I would say is this: no customer in America believes when they leave a tip that they are leaving a wage for a worker. Nobody believes that they’re paying a wage. People think they’re paying a tip on top of a wage. We don’t think about this in any other context except restaurants. We believe somehow that because they’re getting tips, they shouldn’t get a wage. It’s not true in any other context. And that is because of the power of this industry.

Researcher Jayaraman cites evidence that managers illegally take a portion of workers’ tips, and shares even more shocking revelations about the food industry

Most people believe that when they leave a tip, it goes entirely to that worker that they’re tipping. There are so many things that happen. First of all, that worker has to share the tip with probably 20 or 30 other people in the restaurant. Often management illegally takes a portion of the tips.

The tips are meant to make up the difference between that lower minimum wage of $2.13 and the overall minimum wage of $7.25. But the U.S. Department of Labor reports an 80 percent violation rate with regard to employers actually making sure that tips make up that difference. And what results? Seventy percent of tipped workers in America are women.

And they work at the IHOP and the Applebee’s and the Olive Garden. Their median wage, including tips, is under $9 an hour. They suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and they use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. So we’re talking about poverty-wage workers, including their tips.

Millions of women, most women in America start their work life as a young woman in high school or college or graduate school working in restaurants. Many go on to something else, millions stay in this industry. But whether they stay or they go on, because these women are forced to live off their tips because their wages are so low, they go to taxes, and they’re not getting their income from their employer, but rather from the consumer. They’re forced to put up with whatever the customer might do to them, however they may touch them or treat them or talk to them.

And as a result, we have the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States. Seven percent of American women work in restaurants. But 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the E.E.O.C. come from the restaurant industry. So we are exposing young women to the world of work in this industry in which they can rely completely for their income off tips, in which they can be touched and treated any which way. It’s a demeaning situation to be in when you earn $2.13 an hour as a woman and you are completely reliant off customers’ largess, off the mercy of the clientele for your income, 100 percent. You’re living off tips.

Leader Jayaraman wages a campaign to eliminate system of lower wages for tipped workers

We need to eliminate the system of a lower wage for tipped workers all together. So there is a bill moving through Congress that would raise the overall minimum wage to $10.10 and get tipped workers to 70 percent of that, or $7. That’s a good start, because it allows these workers some base wage, $7—

[A ballot initiative in Michigan] we’re demanding that the wage go up to at least $10.10 and that the wage for tipped workers also be $10.10. And the language we’re using is that no employer should be able to pay less than the minimum wage.

In Washington D.C., we’re saying $12.50 for everybody, tipped, and non-tipped.

There’s legislation moving in Florida and Pennsylvania also to eliminate the lower minimum wage for tipped workers. So the nation is moving towards eliminating the lower wage for tipped workers. Not eliminating tips. And I want to be clear about that.

I strongly believe that you would need $18 to $25 an hour to survive in the United States, in a city like New York or almost anywhere in this country to pay for childcare, to pay for transportation, but at the very least, to have a stable-base wage that you can count on, that doesn’t fluctuate the way tips do, that doesn’t go up and down. I mean, your rent doesn’t go up and down, your bills don’t go up and down, your childcare expenses don’t go up and down. But for these workers, their income fluctuates from hour to hour, week to week, month to month.

So whether they’re working as a diner server or as a fine-dining server — you know, there are certainly ways to move up and certainly you can get a better income in a fine-dining restaurant where you can make a livable wage. They’re few and far between. For all of these workers, what they really need is a stable base wage that they can count on.

Researcher Jayaraman alerts custoners to the health risks linked to being served by workers too poor to take proper care of themselves

Their lives are going to be unending poverty, unstable family incomes, constant reliance on public assistance. What does it mean for us as customers? It means being served by workers who are too poor or often too sick to take care of themselves and thus take care of us well. It means exposing ourselves to health risks. Because when you live off of tips and you don’t have paid sick days, as most of these workers do not, if your income comes from tips, you’re going to go to work to get those tips regardless of what condition they’re in, right? You’re going to go to work with H1N1– swine flu.

We had a member in Florida testify that she worked with typhoid fever for three weeks. There’s a company, I’m sure you’ve heard of, called Darden, which is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, they own Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille Steakhouse. In 2011, they announced the partnership with Michelle Obama saying that they were going to provide healthy food for kids at the Olive Garden. Well, at that same moment, a server was forced to work with hepatitis A in Fayetteville, North Carolina Olive Garden. And with a wage as low as $2.13 an hour, she had to go to work to get those tips.

Well, 3,000 people were exposed to hepatitis A as a result of that incident, had to get tested by the local county health department, filed a consumer class action against the restaurant, and won. So we ask, how healthy can your food really be for your kids at the Olive Garden if they’re going to be exposed to hepatitis A?

Ninety percent of restaurant workers in America do not have access to healthcare or paid sick days. Which means, according to our research, two-thirds of restaurant workers report cooking, preparing, and serving our food when they’re sick. The Center for Disease Control has said that 50 to 80 percent of all norovirus outbreaks in the United States can be traced back to sick restaurant workers.

Irrepressible, can-do Jayaraman radiates boundless hope, cites victory of paid sick days for tipped workers

There’s so much hope, Bill, there’s so much hope. So I want to give you one example. A couple of years ago, this happened in Washington D.C. The people fought for a local paid-sick-days ordinance. Meaning that every worker in the District of Columbia would be guaranteed that if they were sick, they could take a day off. Now, the Restaurant Association has been fighting this. In fact, they’ve introduced legislation, together with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, declaring that citizens in those states should not have the right to pass paid sick days ordinances, even if they vote for them. So they tried this. But in the District of Columbia, we did pass a local paid sick days ordinance.

At the last minute, behind-closed-door deal, they said, “Tipped workers should be left out.” Restaurant workers got together with allies, consumers, said, “Enough is enough.” We fought and we won. We overcame the power of the National Restaurant Association. We got paid sick days for tipped workers in the District of Columbia.

Irrepressible Jayaraman exhorts there’s nothing people can’t achieve once they expose and resist the moneyed forces that control the system

I’ve learned again and again and again that definitely there are moneyed forces that have controlled our system. But also that there’s nothing that the people cannot achieve once they expose those forces and once they resist. That we can actually overcome even the most hardened, moneyed lobbyists in Washington D.C. or in states around the country. Because ultimately, if we are a true democracy, we cannot cede, we cannot cede our democratic powers to those people. We cannot throw up our hands and say, “Well, money controls Washington, money controls politics, I’m going to sit back.” We cannot cede that because then there’s no point in living in a democracy, truly. We–

We still have some power to say, “We will not put up with this.” We still have some power to say, “This is outrageous. It is outrageous that working people should have to put up with this kind of misery. It is outrageous that working people should have to pay each other’s wages rather than these multi-million-dollar restaurant chains paying their own workers’ wages.”

This is the only industry on Earth, really in any nation on Earth, that has gotten away with saying, “We practically shouldn’t pay our workers at all. Customers should pay our workers’ wages. We shouldn’t have to pay our workers’ wages.” In any other context, what is it called when an employer practically doesn’t pay their workers, full-time workers? It’s called slavery.

And so how is it that a major industry has basically convinced America, convinced Congress, that they practically shouldn’t have to pay their workers at all? It’s purely money and power. And their control over our legislators. So obviously, Congress hasn’t been listening to the populace, Republican or Democratic alike. And that’s what we need to regain control over.

For more information go to, where we have all kinds of information. And especially, we would encourage people in the state of Michigan and Washington D.C., Florida, and Pennsylvania, get involved. Help support these ballot initiatives and this legislation. In other states, let’s move it there too. Let’s move this everywhere.

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