Mark Bittman talks with a leader of the food labor movement, Saru Jayaraman, about how far the movement has come, and where it still has to go.
Watch the video and say whether the statements below are true or false.
1 The restaurant industry's the largest sector of the US economy.
2 Eleven million people work in this sector.
3 The federal minimum wage is $7.25 for all the workers in the sector.
4 The situation of restaurant workers in US is unique in the world.
5 Wages are low because growing food is getting more and more expensive.
6 California is the only state that has eliminated tipped minimum wage.
7 In-N-Out is set as an example of a company that treats workers very well.
8 The minimum wage for workers in America is $15.
I've known Saru Jayaraman for a long time, and she is one busy woman. Co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, author, activist, wife, and mother.
In recent months, the news has been filled with coverage of protests against McDonald's and other restaurants by workers seeking to earn higher wages. So I caught up with Saru at a local cafe in Los Angeles to discuss her perspective on the ongoing movement for change in the restaurant industry.
The restaurant industry's the second largest and absolute fastest-growing sector of the economy. It's the largest segment of the food system and the food chain. It's over 11 million workers. And yet they're the absolute lowest-paid workers in America, and it's because of the power of the Restaurant Association. Right now, the federal minimum wage is at the bottom of everybody. It's $7.25 for non-tipped workers and $2.13 an hour for tipped workers. And it's been stuck there for 24 years. We have basically allowed the Restaurant Association in the vast majority of states to basically argue we should be the only industry on Earth, because we're the only country where this happens that doesn't have to pay its own workers. You, the customer, should pay our workers' wages for us, because these workers are making their income through tips.
We know that wages in general are artificially low because food has been so cheap. We also know that food has been so cheap because we're growing food in the possibly least sustainable way we can imagine. We're able to hold costs artificially down, and this is just another part of it.
But all of our research has shown that it actually wouldn't have to go up dramatically to pay workers a living wage.
That would be a raise for almost everybody.
30 million workers in America. The cost of food for the average American household, all food bought outside the home, would be, at most, $0.30 more per day.
What's the strategy for changing things on the big scale?
Yeah. It's going to take policy change, because sometimes you just need a blunt instrument of the law to tell restaurants, you know, you actually have to pay your own workers. The state of California did it. Six other states besides California have done it. There's no reason why…
Have eliminated tipped minimum wage.
Have eliminated a lower wage for tipped workers. This is where my dual role at UC Berkeley really comes into play. We've put out research on how much the cost of food would go up, the sexual harassment that tipped workers face.
I'm... I mean, I'm going to ask a very direct question. Is there an industry leader, someone who's... is Darden or someone else on the verge of saying, we understand that this is correct. We want to be the right people. We want to take the lead on this. Is there someone near that place?
Yes, there is. In-N-Out pays its workers really good living wages, provides health benefits, provides internal mobility. One of the best companies I've seen. Chipotle currently has great standards in terms of internal mobility, is thinking about wage and benefit standards. I think could be a real industry leader on these issues.
What you consider a huge victory is so small a part of the work that you're doing.
It is so small, yes.
Not to depress you.
No, no, it's true.
But I mean, you work so hard, and the people who are working with you work so hard, to get…
Yeah, minimal increases of something that's so pathetic to begin with.
Which is why a national policy change is really the way to go.
You're right. What we really need is the federal government to say, give a living wage to all your workers, $15 across the board, as they do in many countries in Europe. The joy of seeing workers with so little power come together and win up against some of the most powerful trade lobbies and corporations in the world? I just have the best job in the world to be a part of that. That's what drives me.
With people like Saru and many others driving change, it will be really interesting to watch how this movement continues to unfold. Because the fight for wage justice is one of the most important there is right now.
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