ROC-NY members head out of the kitchen and into the streets. Courtesy: ROC United.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has a hard time pronouncing “Jayaraman,” but he’s been getting some practice.
At a conference of labor researchers this spring, the union leader introduced Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), as a “real pioneer.” No wonder he’s impressed. In an industry that, according to the Labor Department, is more than 95 percent unorganized, ROC has been winning money settlements for workers, improving conditions in trendsetting restaurants, and making a policy impact large enough to render one of the nation’s most powerful corporate lobbies visibly nervous.
Indeed, in calling Jayaraman a pioneer who’s “demanding answers to the questions that need to be asked about the future of workers,” Trumka may have things backward. The truth is, ROC’s not demanding answers so much as coming up with them, and they are answers that may have beyond-the-restaurant relevance for twenty-first-century labor.
Jayaraman was a 26-year-old lawyer working with immigrants in New York when she was tapped to head what became ROC. She’d done plenty of eating out, but, she admits, “I’m embarrassed to say I couldn’t think of a single person who had touched my food.”
September 11 changed all that. Seventy-three restaurant workers at Windows on the World died that morning. Another 250 lost their jobs. Soon after, the hotel workers union then known as HERE approached Jayaraman and Fekkak Mamdouh, one of the leading waiters at Windows, about starting an organization to support the survivors.
Today, ROC has some 10,000 members in thirty cities, while Jayaraman—now the mother of two young children—has become the director of the new Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also the author of Behind the Kitchen Door, which was published by Cornell University Press this past spring with a foreword by Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation. The book and her publicity tour are all part of what ROC calls its “three-pronged” strategy. Prong one: organize workers, punish the worst employers and win wide-ranging settlements. Prong two: promote the “high road to profitability” and best practices in the industry. Prong three: change local and national policy.
Last fall, the organization scored a win on a couple of those prongs when they struck a deal with Mario Batali’s famed Del Posto in New York, a place where the beef is truffled, the octopus charred and the prix-fixe dinner costs $115. In 2010, ROC filed a lawsuit alleging that the restaurant’s management had denied workers tips and overtime and engaged in “race and national origin discrimination and retaliation.” The settlement didn’t only include cash, although there was $1.15 million of that for thirty-one current and former employees; it also contained cultural sensitivity training for managers and a new emphasis on promoting employees from within. And Del Posto agreed to become a “High Road Employer,” collaborating with ROC on a plan for implementing paid sick days as well as vacation days and benefits.
Batali’s is not the only business that has come to an agreement with ROC without a strike, a union or National Labor Relations Board involvement. Brand-sensitive restaurants are vulnerable to public shaming, and no white-tablecloth establishment wants its diners serenaded by protesters, like the ones who showed up with ROC signs outside Del Posto—or, worse, treated to the sight of inflatable vermin. As Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio (of Craft) put it, becoming a ROC partner is smart: “What’s the alternative? Having a twelve-foot cockroach in front of your restaurant?”