Savio lecturer: Speak up for workers ‘behind the kitchen door’

As recently as 2001, Saru Jayaraman admitted Thursday in Wheeler Auditorium, she was just another “oblivious, happy consumer,” a recent arrival in New York City dining out as often as three times a day and rarely giving a thought to the people who served and prepared her meals.

Saru Jayaraman

Saru Jayaraman (UC Berkeley photo by Barry Bergman)

It was the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center — in which 73 workers in the Windows on the World restaurant, mostly immigrants, lost their lives, and which caused the loss of thousands of food-industry jobs throughout lower Manhattan — that opened her eyes, and helped make her one of the country’s most impassioned, articulate voices on behalf of restaurant workers.

Thursday night, as the featured speaker at this year’s Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, Jayaraman — now the director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center — urged her audience also to “speak up, in the same way that you spoke up 50 years ago,” at the birth of the Free Speech Movement. And, reflecting at least one way activism has changed since the 1960s, now there’s an app for that, courtesy of the workers’-rights organization Jayaraman founded post-9/11, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

The evening, coming toward the end of a weeklong 50th-anniversary celebration of the FSM, began on a technological note, as Lynne Hollander Savio, Mario’s widow, read a message from Edward Snowden, whose release of thousands of classified documents in 2013 blew the whistle on widespread U.S. government surveillance.

“Berkeley’s unparalleled traditions of student activism and community engagement have been both a challenge and an inspiration to human-rights movements worldwide,” wrote Snowden, now in exile in Russia. “They compel us to imagine the world that we want to live in and to stand up for it — and they show us that with vision and persistence, we can change the world.”

That was a message shared by Jayaraman, who agreed that “surveillance is the issue of our generation,” together with “corporate control of our democracy.”

‘The other NRA’

How is it possible, she asked, that the U.S. restaurant industry — “one of the most profitable and fastest-growing industries in America” — continues to provide the “absolute lowest-paying jobs” in the nation? How is it possible that 90 percent of the country’s restaurant workers — many of them involved in preparing food — don’t get even a single earned sick day?

It’s possible,” she explained, “due to the power and influence of the trade lobby called the National Restaurant Association, which we call ‘the other NRA.’”

In 1996, led by former Republican presidential contender Herman Cain, the “other NRA,” she said, “struck a deal with Congress”: It would not oppose a modest boost in the federal minimum wage, so long as the minimum wage for tipped workers “stayed frozen forever” at $2.13 an hour. (California is one of just seven states that do not have a separate minimum wage for tipped workers.)

“The NRA has managed to paint a picture of who tipped workers are,” Jayaraman said. “They say the white guy, working at Chez Panisse, earning $18 an hour in tips, or $100,000 a year — he’s doing quite fine.” In fact, however, “70 percent of tipped workers in America are women — women who work at the IHOP, and Applebee’s, and the Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Women whose median wage, including tips, is $8 an hour.”

Tipped workers have a poverty rate three times that for the rest of the work force, Jayaraman said, and use food stamps at double the rate — “which means,” she added, “the women who put food on our tables in America can’t actually afford to put food on their own family tables.”

Women in the restaurant industry are also subject to constant sexual harassment, she said, both from their managers and from the customers on whose tips, absent a livable wage from their employers, their financial survival depends.

Jayaraman, who attended UCLA before going on to Yale Law and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, was organizing restaurant workers, custodial workers and day laborers on Long Island when she was enlisted to start a relief center to help Windows on the World survivors and their families get back on their feet in the wake of 9/11.

That effort eventually grew into Restaurant Opportunities Centers United — ROC-U — a national restaurant-workers organization with 13,000 members in 32 cities. Jayaraman has written a book, Behind the Kitchen Door, and has drawn national attention to the cause via countless news profiles and television appearances.

She has also drawn unwanted attention, she noted, to herself and her children, which at times has led her to wonder if the sacrifices she makes for activism are worth it.

“Every single time that question arises,” she said Thursday, “ I know this is not actually just about raising the wage. I know this isn’t actually just about getting 6 million women a basic wage so they don’t have to rely on tips. This is about, are we a nation that is going to roll over and let corporations control our democracy and our economy, and even our bodies as women? Is this what we’re going to accept as a nation?”

Then, making the connection to the activists of an earlier age, she added: “We need you to speak up. We need everybody here to speak up, in the same way that you spoke up 50 years ago. You created one of the greatest changes in our history. We need you now, in this moment, with this generation, to create this change.”