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Another Victory for Resistance: Restaurant Workers Win Settlement From Star Chef | The Nation

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Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Another Victory for Resistance: Restaurant Workers Win Settlement From Star Chef

Score another victory for resistance. After thirty-one workers sued his acclaimed restaurant Del Posto, celebrity chef Mario Batali has agreed to a $1.15 million settlement.

The employees are members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’s organization, whose two-year battle with Batali has included boisterous protests outside of his fine-dining restaurant in West Chelsea.

While refusing to admit guilt, Batali management said in a statement for reporters: “B & B Hospitality Group is proud to share that we have come to an amicable resolution with the ROC and look forward to working with ROC-NY to continue to foster and improve mutually beneficial relationships with our team.”

ROC’s suit, brought in federal court, charged that workers were discriminated against and deprived of tip money and overtime. The settlement includes an agreement to expand the restaurant’s paid sick days and vacation policies and to institute a promotions policy and cultural sensitivity training for management.

“Mario Batali has actually done the right thing,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC-United, the national network of which ROC-NY is a member. She continued:

As a result of workers standing up and saying "we’re being discriminated against" a chef that was very abusive was fired; there are new policies in place to help workers move up the ladder in Mario’s restaurants; he’s also agreed to work with ROC to promote what we call the “high-road profitability" in the industry…Workers standing up can lead to victory and change.

Stand up and sue. Some might say that’s strategy enough. The settlement with Batali was ROC-NY’s tenth resolution of a workplace justice campaign in their decade of operations, winning a total of more than $5 million for aggrieved workers. But Jayaraman and her colleagues go further. Founded after September 11, 2001, by workers, many of whom had been employed at the World Trade Towers’s restaurant Windows on the World, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) has grown into a national organization with 8000 low-wage restaurant worker members in eight locations. They bring suits and protest, produce reports, partner with “high-road” employers and train members for career advancement. They are also launching a major initiative to involve restaurant-goers.

The nation’s 10 million restaurant workers are among the country’s lowest-paid employees, laboring mostly without protections or benefits for a median wage of $9 an hour. The legal minimum wage for tipped workers (like restaurant workers) has stood unchanged at $2.13 since 1991. Lawsuits are great, says Jayaraman,

But at the same time there’s got to be broader change because going restaurant by restaurant, we’re not going to win. There are ten million restaurant workers in America and over a million restaurants in America; we need to see some policy change. And for those small mom and pop restaurants, change is better when it happens across the board rather than restaurant by restaurant. We are not asking people to stick their neck out and pay a much higher wage; instead we want the floor to be lifted for everybody.

Consumers have a role to play too. “if we care about organic, sustainable or locally sourced or anything else that impacts our health and our dining experience we have to consider sustainable labor practices in restaurants as a part of sustainable food.”

To help the hapless consumer, just out for a romantic bite, ROC-U has created a national diners’s guide. (An iPhone app will be available this fall.) Using the guide, diners will be able to pick “high road” from “low-road” eateries. Get your copy here.

Below, you can read a rushed transcript my entire conversation with Saru Jayaraman, last week, in which we talk about minimum wages, movements and the joys of running a worker co-op. Early next year, Jayaraman is coming out with a book, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Everyone Should Know About the People Who Feed Us, from Cornell Press. ROC’s is a new model of organizing, along the lines of what’s been powering the National Domestic Workers United. There’s a lot in both groups’s strategy of broad community engagement that traditional unions could learn.

Transcript:

Laura Flanders: You have a book coming out in February from Cornell Press, Behind the Kitchen Door: What Everyone Should Know About the People Who Feed Us. What does everyone need to know?

Saru Jayaraman: We need to know that the ten million restaurant workers in the United States that touch our food every time we eat out, are the lowest paid workers in America, and that ninety percent don’t have access to benefits like paid sick days, which means that two-thirds of them, according to our research, cook, prepare and serve food while sick. And so the incredibly unsustainable wages and benefits of this industry lead to unsustainable food and unsustainable dining experiences for us so we need to know that if we care about organic, sustainable or locally sourced or anything else that impacts our health and our dining experience we have to consider sustainable labor practices in restaurants as a part of sustainable food.

What kind of wages are we talking about?

The median wage for restaurant workers is about $9 in the U.S. Seven of the ten lowest paid jobs in America are restaurant jobs. The two lowest paying jobs in America, lower than every other type of occupation—farm workers, every other type of occupation—are restaurant workers. So, we’re talking about a minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13, and anything above that for lots of people all over the U.S. is completely dependent on tips. And what that means is that we as consumers are basically paying the wages of this incredibly wealthy and growing industry—we’re subsidizing this very large profitable industry and paying its workers wages.

How did these wages get to be so low? And when was the last time they went up?

In 1991, that’s twenty-one years ago, the minimum wage for tipped workers went up from a $1.85 to $2.13, and they have never increased since then. The reason is that in 1996 the National Restaurant Association, with Herman Cain who was then their head lobbyist, struck a deal with the Democrats in congress saying we will not oppose the overall minimum wage continuing to rise as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stays frozen forever and so it has. It’s really just simply the matter of the power of the National Restaurant Association over Congress.

Do any of the bills that are right now in Congress address this question of the tipped workers’ wage?

Yes, we had a tremendous victory this year, which is that we have been working towards for several years with congresswomen Donna Edwards on a bill called the Wages Act that would increase the tipped minimum wage from what it is now to seventy percent of the regular minimum wage. Well, the big victory was that Democratic leadership, George Miller in the House, Tom Harkin in the Senate decided to introduce a minimum wage bill that for the first time in twenty-one years includes this great new piece that congresswomen Edwards which is an increase to the tipped minimum wage so that it is seventy percent to the regular minimum wage. So it’s the first time in twenty-one years.

Is there any chance of that going anywhere?

We think so, we think we have a real shot but it all depends on us the consumers.

Tell me more about that.

So, we’ve heard from Congress that we need to see a groundswell to show popular demand for an increase to the minimum wage. The stranglehold that the Restaurant Association has over Congress is such that we as consumers need to lift up our voices alongside workers to counterbalance that tremendous power that the Restaurant Association has and there’s so much that we can do. So we’ve launched a multi-year consumer engagement campaign to kind of prove that consumers do care about these issues. We know that consumers care about local produce, locally sourced organic, sustainable. We think that most consumers would also care about sustainable labor practices if only they knew the stories and the data of the ten million restaurant workers who are living under these conditions nationwide.

So what can consumers do?

We’ve created this national diner’s guide. It came out last year. We are putting out an updated version and iPhone app this December, and it includes the minimum wage, paid sick days and internal mobility practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in America, and also those of good restaurants that are trying to do the right thing and provide good wages and good working conditions. We’ve also created these tip cards, and what we are asking people to do at the end of their meal is to use the tip card, either go up to management at the end of the meal and say, "I had a great meal, but I see that you don’t provide paid sick days in this guide or maybe you do, I don’t know, do you? And I’d like to see you do better as a consumer. As a consumer it’s important to me that you do better. Not only is it important to me to have free-range chicken, I want to see the minimum wage for the tipped workers go up. I want to see you provide paid sick days."

A lot of restaurant owners will say, look we’re not some huge corporation, we’ve got narrow margins also, we don’t want to put people out of work, we’re doing the best we can do. If you raise the minimum wage we’re the ones who are going to be laying off workers.

I would say a couple of things. First that hasn’t been proven true in other states by the data. So there are seven states in the United States where the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage are the same. Tipped workers do not receive a lower minimum wage. They include the largest restaurant industry in the country which is California. In California there are all kinds of restaurants: small mom-and-pop restaurants, big, large national chain restaurants. They all are doing fine, and in those states where the tipped minimum wage has gone up there has never been any proof of any job loss in any kind of restaurant. So when you’ve got wages going up across the board, a level increase for all restaurants, it doesn’t actually lead to job loss. Everybody manages to pay more. And it’s partly because when you put more money in restaurants workers pockets, they actually spend more in their own industry. Restaurant workers tend to consume more and tip better. So I think putting more money in general into American’s pockets, particularly in this economy, will actually help the restaurant industry than actually hurt it.

Let’s talk strategy. If there are labor violations, which is part of what you charge, why not bring a lawsuit rather than this big campaign?

First, yes, we have won some victories. We just won a victory against exploitation and discrimination in Mario Batali’s restaurants. Mario Batali has actually done the right thing, has claimed to want to do right by his workers and I think he really believes it and wants to. As a result of workers standing up and saying we’re being discriminated against a chef that was very abusive was fired. There are new policies in place to help workers move up the ladder in Mario’s restaurants. He’s also agreed to work with ROC to promote what we call the “High Road Profitability” in the industry.

So yes, I think workers standing up can lead to victory and change in the industry. We’ve got another lawsuit against the Darden Restaurant Company, which is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company. They own Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grill Steakhouse, their workers have come forward and claimed wage theft and discrimination issues, and they also demanding an increase to that ridiculously low wage of $2.13 and access to paid sick days.

Yes, these campaigns make a real difference and consumers can help and lawsuits and campaigns let companies know that there will be consequences for unsustainable labor practices. But at the same time there’s got to be broader change because going restaurant by restaurant, we’re not going to win. There are ten million restaurant workers in America and over a million restaurants in America; we need to see some policy change. And for those small mom-and-pop restaurants, change is better when it happens across the board rather than restaurant by restaurant. We are not asking people to stick their neck out and pay a much higher wage; instead we want the floor to be lifted for everybody.

Finally, your organization ROC United came out of the tragedy of 9/11. A lot of the workers were people who had been from Windows on the World restaurant Trade towers. You started a restaurant in New York, Colors, that is marking its tenth anniversary this year. It’s a co-op, now is that a worker antagonism-free environment?

[Laughs]. No, Colors is a cooperatively owned and it’s grown. We actually now have a Colors, not only in New York, but also in Detroit and we’re opening up a third Colors restaurant in New Orleans early next year and as any democratic institution it has had its growing pains for sure. There’s no antagonism-free environment, and I want to say there’s no perfect employer and we at ROC don’t expect anybody to be perfect, we just expect everybody, including Colors, to continually strive to be better, to continually strive to provide better more sustainable practices and an environment where workers feel that they are treated with dignity and respect.

So how are conflicts resolved at the worker-owned cooperative different from other restaurants?

Well, in a co-op workers have to come together and decide together how, for example, does the menu need to be changed to be affordable? Do we need to have more locally sourced, affordable items on our menu? And when you have workers coming together to solve these conflicts make these decisions they feel more invested in the solution, but I will say even apart from Colors, there are plenty of “High Road Partners” we have across the country. Restaurant owners that involve their workers in these kinds of decisions and it results in better dining experience for everybody. Workers are more invested in their craft, and the food is better and the service is better as well.

What can people do if they want to get your tip cards and more information about ROC?

They can go to our website, www.rocunited.org. Excitingly they can also purchase the book via our website Behind the Kitchen Door and that will be really critical because the book is really part of the movement driving the issues to the forefront of the public’s attention. There will be a series of short films coming out with the book so people can get involved. So use the tip cards, read the books, watch the films. We’re creating a new consumer organization, they can join the organization. There’s plenty that people can do to get involved.

From restaurant workers to students, check out Allison Kilkenny's roundup of other recent resistance success stories.

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