The Feministing Five: Saru Jayaraman

saru_headshot_cropped Back in college, one of my favorite American literature professors remarked, “If you want to sense of a culture’s inner-workings, take a look at what’s happening around the kitchen table.” At the time he was referring to the plethora of metaphors of America as “melting pot” vs. “salad,” but I was reminded of his observation during this week’s interview. In the Grand Foodie race to towards Ultimate Hipness, America’s restaurant culture disjointedly seeks acclaim for its sustainable veggies, meats, and grains while skirting sustainable labor practices for those who cook, clean, and serve. As the brilliant Saru Jayaraman would point out, America’s restaurant scene is not one of yuppie abundance, but deeply ingrained inequality.

As the co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), Saru is a leading voice in workers’ rights–particularly in regard to establishing a raising a livable minimal wage. Like other successful advocacy campaigns, ROC supports restaurant workers with traditional in-person actions across the country, but its ingenuity comes through in its innovative media reinforcements. For example, ROC’s Diners Guide mobile app empowers consumers to support restaurants that cultivate sustainable labor practices and ROC’s online “Living Off Tips” campaign crowdsources narratives of injustice (ranging from economic to facing sexual abuse) in the industry. To learn more about ROC’s and Saru’s work, check out their recent book, Behind the Kitchen Door, and join their movement for a more inclusive and responsible food system.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Saru Jayaraman! 

Suzanna Bobadilla: You’re a fantastic expert in food and labor sustainability with incredible experience. What initially motivated you to pursue your activism in this particular field?

Saru Jayaraman: I had been organizing immigrant workers in a variety of different sectors for several years. My parents are immigrants from India so it made sense to me to be fighting for the rights of low wage immigrant workers. That’s what I was doing when 9/11 happened–there was a restaurant on top of the World Trade Center, and on that morning seventy workers died while 13,000 restaurant workers lost their jobs in the months following the tragedy. There was a tiny union inside of the restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center, Windows on the World, and they called me and one of the head waiters from Windows. We started the organization as a relief center at the request of the union for all of the workers who had lost their jobs and the families of the victims but the center exploded into a national restaurant workers organization. We now have about 13,000 members in 32 cities across the country  and a hundred employer partners and several thousand consumer members.

How we really began to think of this at the intersection between food and labor is that, especially over the last five or so years, as we have continued to fight for and win some victories for restaurant workers, we’ve seen incredible advancements for the broader food movement in terms of locally sourced organic food and the industry really changing as a result of consumer demand. We realized that we need to both partner with and replicate the success of the food movement–both to expand the definition of sustainable food to include sustainable working conditions for workers throughout the food system and replicate the food movement’s success in using books and films to really reach a wider audience that we had been able to reach throughout labor organizing. That’s why I wrote the book, Behind the Kitchen Doorand we have had films that came out and more on the way. Now we’ve both begun to partner with food movement in a very real way and we’ve begun to reach the food movement and beyond in regards to consumers who care about eating ethically.

SB: More about widening the scope of ethical eating–while veganism and vegetarianism seem to dominate the conversation, how we can incorporate the ways in which women’s, immigrant’s, people of color’s rights are also crucial parts of creating sustainable systems? 

SJ: First, I just want to give you some background on our industry. We always say to consumers who ask “What can we do?” there are three things. One is to educate–and I want to share with you some information on the industry. the second is to speak up to legislators. We actually have this consumer facing website called “The Welcome Table” where consumers can sign petitions to Congress to change the wage structure. And the third is to use our Diner’s Guide and mobile app, which tells you how restaurants are fairing on this issues to speak up every time you eat up.

One that first piece–I think it’s really important for especially women to know that restaurant industry is the second largest and absolutely fastest growing sector of the US economy. It’s over 10 million workers, 1 in 12 Americans work in the industry, and yet it’s the absolutely lowest paying employers in the United States. Every year, the US Department of Labor puts out a list of the ten lowest paying jobs in America and every year 7 of the 10 lowest pay jobs and the two absolute paying jobs are restaurant jobs. The reason for the fact that you have the largest and fastest growing industry in American proliferating the absolute lowest paying jobs is the power of the National Restaurant Association, which we call the Other NRA. They really are, we like to say that they kill more people annual that the Rifle Association because of obesity. But back in 1996 they were led by a man named Herman Cain who later tried to run for president and they struck this deal with Congress under Herman Cain’s leadership which said that we will not oppose an increase in the over all minimal wage, as long as the wage for tipped workers stays frozen forever at $2.13 an hour. Since 1991, which is over 22 years, the wage has not gone up for tipped workers and everytime there is a minimum wage increase at the state or local level, the tipped workers are left out. The argument that is made by the NRA every time that they are left is that “Oh it’s okay,” and the paint the picture of a guy working a steak hours earning $18 in tips when in fact 70% of tip workers in America are women, they work mostly at I-Hop and Applebees and Olive Garden and Red Lobster and they earn an average of $8 an hour including tips. They suffer from three times the poverty of the rest of the US work force and they use food stamps that double the rate of the US work force which means that the women who put food on our tables in America can’t actually offer to eat themselves.

Forty-three out of the 50 states in this country have a wage of tipped workers between $2.13 and $5 an hour. Because these wages are so low and go entirely to taxes, these women live entirely, almost 100% off their tips. Which means a couple of things–it means that these women are living precarious lives. They never know exactly what their income is going to be because it fluctuates from day-to-day and week-to-week and month-to-month because they are living entirely off the mercy of customers. This also means that they are extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment because these women are basically interviewing for their wages with every new customer that sits down, every table. They don’t get their wages from their employer, but from their customer. That makes them very vulnerable to whatever the customer might do to them, they might touch them or treat them or talk to them, that’s why 7% of American women work in restaurants but 37% of all sexual harassment claims to the EOC comes from restaurant industry. It’s by far the industry of the highest rate of sexual harassment by any industry in the country, it’s because these women are so vulnerable to not only a very macho industry among their bosses and their co-workers but because of very severe and gross treatment by their customers. I’ve been on this crazy book tour going around the country talking about these issues and almost everywhere I go some woman stops me and says, “I’m a corporate lawyer, an executive, I’m an union organizer, and I’ve been sexual harrassed on the job but I’ve never reported it because it was very as bad as it was when I was a young woman working in restaurants.”

Most young women in America start their work life in the restaurant industry and whether they go on to something else or their stay in the industry, regardless they are being introduced to a world of work that they can be touched and treated and talked to in this way and it’s okay and normal. We are formalizing sexual harassment through this industry.

These are the issues that are just so severe that need to be overcome. We’ve got legislation on the federal level that would raise the wage for tipped workers and it’s not enough because it would raise it to only 70% of the regular minimum wage even if it passes, which it’s unlikely to in this House. The momentum is really at the state level where we’ve got ballot initiatives and legislation moving to actually eliminate the lower minimum wage for women all together–to get tipped workers a 100% of what everyone else in this country is living off of so that everyone gets their wage from their employer rather than living off tips.

That’s why we say that we have three things that we need consumers to do. One is to get educated to read the book Behind the Kitchen Door, to see the films on our website to really understand our issue. Because just like Michael Pollans’ book The Omnivores Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, we need these issues to become household issues where everybody who eats out knows about them. Two is to sign the petition at Welcome Table to Congress to say, “Enough is enough. This industry should not be the only one in the world where employers don’t pay their workers wages but rather expect customers too.” The third thing is to use our smart phone app every time you eat out and speak out and say, “I love the food, I love the service, but I would love to see you provide a livable wage to all your workers if they aren’t tipped. I would love to see you provide sick days to your workers, I would love to see you promote women to management positions, I would love to see you promote people of color to server and bartender positions in fine dining. These are important to me as a consumer.” Just as the industry has changed from hearing that local and sustainable is important, they’ll change when customers say that wages and benefits are important too.

SB:  I’m really interested by ROC’s combination of your media campaign (like your YouTube videos and apps) along with your traditional activism and I would love to learn more about your decision to invest in this digital outreach.

SJ:  So many of our folks are online and restaurant workers themselves are online. I think it would be silly not to–the folks who I think would be able to really help us move this movement are online. I don’t just mean the workers but the consumers and even the employers. We see this as a multi-stakeholder effort. Our desire has always been not to be talking to the converted because we’re sick of that and we know that we are never going to win that way. The only way to reach the masses is this cultural tools–books, films, online tools. For example our book trailer that is now on YouTube is one of the most useful tools that we have ever created and we spent about $1500 on it. It was our members coming together and saying, “This is what we see in our industry every day,” and something very visually striking came out of it. It was never a question of “Should we do this or not” but rather “how do we do it in a way that we don’t become an online organizing group–that we still have solid boots on the ground and be effective in all spaces?” I think the online organizing groups have as many staff as we do doing on-the-ground. So the question is how many resources do you put into each bucket. For us, we choose to put as much in on the ground but have a lot to learn from online organizing space and vice-versa.

SB: What are your top three things when someone should look out for when someone goes out to eat at a restaurant to help develop this consciousness? 

SJ: In the app we rate people on the three top priority issues for our membership which are wages, benefits, and internal advancements. In wages, the bill that’s moving through Congress asks for a raise to the overall wage to $10 and the tipped wage to $7. This year our app is at $9 and $5 but next year it will get updated. The app rates, “Do you at least pay your staff at least $9 if they aren’t tipped and $5 if they are?” That’s the bare minimum that we ask the employer to cover. This is something that consumers should say to the manager or owner as they leave–not to the worker. Do not talk to the worker, talk to the manager or owner.

The second thing is paid sick days. It’s such a basic thing but no one has this in our industry. And I suggest to go owners and ask, “Do your workers have paid sick days?” And usually the employer says, “Oh they can always quit shifts if they are sick.” And it’s important for the consumer to say, “No I actually believe that workers should have a paid day off to take off if they are sick.”

The third thing is to look out for the race and gender composition of the dining floor and the kitchen–especially if you are at a nice night out a fancy restaurant, to literally count how many workers of color do you see among the servers and bartending staff versus the bussing staff and the running staff and the kitchen staff and how many women do you see in which positions. In the really nice restaurants, you should count how many women you see on the floor at all in terms of fine dining service and in terms of management positions, do you see any women? Those are things to look out for.

But one thing that we wanted to ask Feministing readers to check out is our new page “Living Off Tips” where we have mostly all women sharing their stories of having lived off tips. Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler shared their stories and we wanted to invite your as many readers as possible of having shared their voices. We’d especially want to feature stories of people who have lived off tips and have expressed sexual harassment.

SB: And our final Feministing Five question — you’re stranded on a desert island and you get one drink, one food, and one feminist. What do you pick? 

SJ: For food, I would probably choose Indian food, comfort food. Drink would be water because I’d need it to survive. Feminist would be my four-year-old daughter who is a super strong little girl and is already a total feminist. Yeah, I’d want to be with her.


Suzanna Bobadilla

Suzanna Bobadilla (Photo by Jonathan Weiskopf)

Suzanna Bobadilla runs the Feministing Five and works in the Bay Area.



San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

Read more about Suzanna

Join the Conversation