The Woman Who’s Changing the Definition of ‘Foodie’

From In These Times:

ROC’s Saru Jayaraman is doing for ethical eating what Michael Pollan did for slow food.

BY Michelle Chen
February 9, 2013

As one of the largest low-wage sectors in the country, restaurant work is more than a tough gig—it’s an industrial pressure cooker. Even at the toniest restaurant, the typical server or cook’s shift may be exhausting, thankless, exploitative, unhealthy (many have to work when sick) or even coercive (when the boss threatens to call immigration authorities if they complain about unpaid wages).

The restaurant industry rests on a base wage that starves workers. Unlike other workplaces, restaurants can pay tipped workers such as servers as little as $2.13 an hour on the assumption that they will earn something comparable to the regular federal minimum wage of 7.25 through tips. The system has gender and racial biases built into it, as many women and workers of color are disproportionately relegated to precarious tip work, like server jobs. Poverty wages and limited opportunities for promotion keep them mired in the industry’s lowest tiers. Meanwhile the federal tipped minimum wage has been flat, without even inflation adjustment, for over two decades.

For over a decade, the Restaurant Opportunities Center has been developing a new recipe for labor mobilization that infuses grassroots worker empowerment with policy advocacy, adds a dash of media-savvy marketing, and—to generate enduring consciousness in a high-turnover industry—stirs in street-level direct action and a global economic justice vision.

In a recent interview with In These Times, ROC’s co-founder Saru Jayaraman (now Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley) reflected on her experience organizing in a sector that has long remained marginal to the American labor movement. Her recently released book, Behind the Kitchen Door, encapsulates ROC’s journey from a hardscrabble worker center in Lower Manhattan to a national network of activists taking on a massively profitable industry.

Jayaraman, who built the organization from the ground up with a group of displaced workers from the Twin Towers after 9/11, starts her outreach small—with the diner who pauses between bites to think about who prepared her meal and how.

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