Saru Jayaraman: Activist, Organizer, Professor

Saru Jayaraman

Saru Jayaraman

As part of our continuing “This Girl Is On Fire” campaign to close the achievement gap, we conducted an interview with Saru Jayaraman.

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. Saru is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

beyond-kitchen-door600She was profiled in the New York Times “Public Lives” section in 2005, and was named one of Crain’s “40 Under 40” in 2008, 1010 WINS’s “Newsmaker of the Year,” one of CNN’s 10 Visonary Women in 2014, and one of New York Magazine’s “Influentials” of New York City. Saru co-edited The New Urban Immigrant Workforce, (ME Sharpe, 2005) and authored Behind the Kitchen Door.

Restaurant Opportunities Center

What inspired you to start the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC)?

I was asked by the union that was inside Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the WOrld Trade Center. On 9/11/2001, 73 workers died in Windows on the World and 250 workers lost their jobs. I was asked by the union to start a relief center for the surviving workers and the families of the victims. I did, and we called it ROC. However, we were pretty quickly overwhelmed with cries for help from restaurant workers all over the city, and then all over the country. Twelve years later, we have 13,000 members in 32 cities nationwide, 100 employer members, and several thousand consumer members.

Lowest paying jobs

Despite being the second largest employer in the United States, employing 10 million people, the restaurant industry is also home to seven of the ten lowest-paying occupations. What can we do to change this?

The reason that the largest and fastest growing industry offers the lowest-paying jobs is the power of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which has been named the tenth most powerful group in Congress, and wields tremendous power over federal and state legislators. The NRA has lobbied to keep the minimum wage at $2.13 an hour for tipped workers for over two decades. Seventy percent of tipped workers are women who work at restaurants like Applebee’s and IHOP and who suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. We need to fight to change the entire system of allowing this industry to get away with legalized gender pay inequity, paying women servers as little as $2.13. We need to counterbalance the power of the NRA over our democracy by mobilizing workers, employers, and consumers to move legislators to pass worker-friendly legislation and stop remaining under the thumb of the industry lobby.

Saru Jayaraman on Bill Maher

Saru Jayaraman on Bill Maher:

“If you work full time in America, you shouldn’t be living in poverty, you shouldn’t be trying to support a family in poverty,” President Obama told thousands of cheering union members in Milwaukee. According to a Gallup Poll, 71 percent of Americans and 91 percent of Democrats support raising the minimum wage. Earlier this year, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) filed a discharge petition to force an up or down vote on The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (H.R. 1010). To date, 195 House members have signed the petition. Only 23 more member signatures are needed to bring H.R. 1010 to a vote. What can we do to get those 23 signatures?

Unfortunately, even if HR 1010 went to a vote, it would not pass. Even if it passed, it would not be the right legislation, or all that’s necessary. H.R. 1010 proposes raising the minimum wage to $10.10 and tipped workers – who are overwhelmingly female – to 70% of that. What we really need is One Fair Wage – to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers and women altogether. We’ve got legislation and ballot measures moving in multiple states in 2015 to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. This state momentum will help build toward a federal victory. In addition, we are working with allies to have a new minimum wage bill introduced in Congress in 2015 that would propose raising the minimum wage to higher – like $12 – and raising the tipped minimum wage to 100% of the full wage, not 70%.

George and Farid of Bogota Latin Bistro

George Constantinou Fernandez and Farid Ali Lancheros of High Road Restaurant Bogota Latin Bistro:

Women being forced to live off of tips for any portion of their incomes makes them vulnerable to the worst sexual harassment of any industry in the United States. When women are forced to tolerate all kinds of inappropriate customer behavior to get their income in tips, they are also forced to make themselves sexual objects vulnerable to harassment from co-workers and management.

In a Rolling Stone article, Jamie Hagen writes, “Poor labor standards in the restaurant industry and for domestic workers create conditions ripe for [human] trafficking.” Why isn’t this publicized more often?

This is not the only issue facing women in our industry that is not publicized more often. As described above, the tipped minimum wage is a key issue affecting 6 million women in America, and very few people know about it. There are a plethora of issues facing women in our industry that need exposure. That’s why I wrote the book Behind the Kitchen Door.


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