Take This Job and Shove It: The Great Resignation or The Great Revolt?
Labor organizer and Founder of One Fair Wage, Saru Jayaraman, takes us inside one of the fiercest labor struggles to challenge a mighty oligarchy: The food, beverage and restaurant industry. Workers are walking off the job and refusing historically low wages. She says if “we the people” stand with workers as they face this powerful lobby, they can win.
Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, co-founded (after 9/11) the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which grew into a national movement of restaurant workers, employers and consumers. Saru has won many prestigious awards for her advocacy and is the author of four books including: One Fair Wage: Ending All Subminimum Pay in America and Bite Back: People Taking on Corporate Food and Winning.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Production Assistance: Monica Lopez
Saru Jayaraman – The Great Revolution: What A Worker Power Moment Can Mean for Climate Justice | Bioneers 2023 Keynote
Saru Jayaraman – We the People: Workers Rising for Fair Wages | Bioneers 2017 Keynote
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Neil Harvey (Host): In this program, the labor organizer and Founder of One Fair Wage, Saru Jayaraman, takes us inside one of the fiercest labor struggles to challenge a mighty oligarchy: The food, beverage and restaurant industry. She poses this question: If you work full-time, shouldn’t you be able to have enough money to feed your children, pay the rent and cover your basic costs?
I’m Neil Harvey. This is “Take This Job and Shove It: The Great Resignation or The Great Revolt?” with Saru Jayaraman.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933 in the freefall of the Great Depression, he faced off against a powerful oligarchy. The Industrial Revolution had created vast new American fortunes that organized themselves into bloated monopolistic cartels and waged war against workers.
The result was oligarchy: the concentration of political power of, by and for the wealthy.
When their runaway greed crashed the economy in 1929, a quarter of the population was left unemployed and bereft. A third of those working could get only part-time jobs with radically reduced wages.
FDR sought to save capitalism from the capitalists. He promised the American people a New Deal. The government passed historic progressive legislation and programs such as Social Security, unemployment insurance and the beginnings of a welfare social safety net.
Workers’ rights became law and practice: the right to collective bargaining, the 8-hour day and 40-hour work week, worker’s compensation, and the prohibition of child labor.
In 1936 in his re-nomination speech at the Democratic Convention, FDR said this: “An old English judge said, ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ Liberty requires opportunity to make a living. For too many of us, the political equality we once had was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. ”
Yet the battle raged on, and the oligarchic forces have relentlessly sought to roll back these New Deal Reforms ever since.
As the billionaire Warren Buffett summed it up, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Like the 1930s, once again today the extreme wealth inequality and stranglehold of corporate power that catalyzed the New Deal are precipitating a re-awakening of labor and economic justice movements, in the US and around the world.
At the forefront of these movements is Saru Jayaraman. She is a tireless labor organizer and acclaimed academic as Director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. She has written four books, including One Fair Wage: Ending All Subminimum Pay in America.
Saru Jayaraman spoke at a Bioneers conference.
Saru Jayaraman (SJ): We’re in a really incredibly historic, inspiring, just upheaval moment of worker revolt in this country. And I don’t know how many of you are aware of it, I’m going to share what’s going on. So let me first share a little bit about me and the history of this issue. I’ve been working on raising wages and working conditions in the restaurant and service sector for over 20 years now. Getting older. [LAUGHS]
But the reason this is my life’s work, the reason why this is important is that the restaurant and food service sector has been one of the largest and fastest growing private sector employers in the United States for decades. It was 14 million workers pre-pandemic. That was one in 10 American workers pre-pandemic. But it’s been the absolute lowest paying employer for generations, dating back to Emancipation when the restaurant industry first demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, newly freed Black people and didn’t want to pay them anything; they wanted to continue non-chattel slavery. They wanted to get free Black labor.
And so they took this notion that had just come from Europe at the time to the United States called tipping. Tipping in Europe had always been an extra bonus on top of a wage. They took that notion which had just come to the US and they mutated it from being an extra bonus on top of a wage to becoming the entirety of a Black person’s wage in the United States. They said, “I’m not going to pay you, but you’re going to have the wonderful fortune of getting to get these white people’s tips.” And so they did.
They created a system in which tipping was the only income for a workforce that was mostly Black women. In 1919, an entity was formed to make sure this policy, this idea that these workers got only tips, stayed in place, called the National Restaurant Association. We call them the other NRA. [LAUGHTER] They were founded in 1919 with this express mission and intent. In 1938, they made it the law. When everybody else got the federal minimum wage as part of the New Deal in 1938, these workers were mostly women, Black women, were left out and told you get nothing, you just get tips. And we went from 0 dollars in 1938 to the extraordinary $2.13 cents an hour, the current federal minimum wage in the United States of America for what I just told you is one of the largest workforces, in fact the number one fastest-growing workforce, the number two largest private sector workforce in America, legally gets to still pay at the federal level, $2.13 an hour.
And while California is one of seven states that rejected this system many decades ago, most states – 43 states in the US – still have a wage for these workers that is under five bucks an hour. So New Mexico is $2, and Pennsylvania is $2.83, and Massachusetts is still at $5. It’s a shame! It’s a shame in 2023 that America gets to still allow this industry, which is essentially telling Americans we shouldn’t have to pay our workers, you the customer should pay our workers’ wages for us through your tips.
Host: Today, wealth in the US is already over two times as concentrated as it was in Imperial Rome, which was a slave-and-farmer society. In this age of the precariat, at least 50% of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $500 emergency. Over half a million Americans annually file for bankruptcy from medical debt. And it keeps getting worse.
As if economic and workplace conditions weren’t already bad enough, then came the 2020 Covid pandemic. Slamming the economy into shock, it was an extinction-level event for small and medium-sized businesses. Six million restaurant workers lost their jobs almost overnight. Many others quit in what became known as “The Great Resignation.”
Suddenly a new term was coined: “essential” workers.
SJ: We started a relief fund – 300,000 workers came to us for relief, and two-thirds of them told us they actually couldn’t get unemployment insurance because in most states they were told that subminimum wage of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 dollars in Connecticut, too low to qualify for benefits. They were disqualified from getting unemployment insurance.
Then they went back to work in the summer of 2020 before they felt safe. You know, CDC named restaurants the most dangerous place for adults to be during the pandemic. UCSF named restaurants the most dangerous place to work above hospitals. A third of the workers we surveyed said somebody in the restaurant died due to COVID. Very dangerous place to work but they didn’t get unemployment insurance, so millions of workers went back to work in the summer of 2020, when some of us started to try outdoor dining. They found tips had gone way down because sales were down, and harassment way up. We already had the highest rates of harassment.
And when they were told to enforce COVID protocols on the same people from whom they had to get tips to make up their base wages, they were done. They were done – 1.2 million workers have left this industry, and of those who remain, 60% say they are leaving. More than half of the current restaurant workforce in California across the country says they are leaving; 80% says the only thing that would make them stay or come back is a full livable wage with tips on top. That’s why I say historic. [APPLAUSE]
For the first time since Emancipation, millions of workers are walking off the job and saying, “Take your job and shove it!” And thousands of restaurants across the country miraculously, many of whom fought us and told us it can’t be done and you’ll put us out of business, are suddenly paying $15, $25, and $30. In Dallas, they were paying $2.13. That’s the wage in Texas. We’re seeing restaurants in Dallas paying $25 an hour, plus tips. [APPLAUSE] In Massachusetts, in Massachusetts the wage has been $5 an hour. Cape Cod restaurants we’re seeing paying $50 plus tips. We are seeing— Pennsylvania, the wage is $2.83. We saw Applebee’s offering 20 bucks in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, because they cannot find people willing to work for these wages anymore. [APPLAUSE]
Host: Saru Jayaraman first became inspired to do labor organizing after 9/11 when 250 immigrant workers in the restaurant atop the World Trade Center died in the attack. The survivors and families started fighting for better working conditions for their profession.
When Saru learned there was no organization or union to fight for workers’ rights in that sector, she co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center or ROC United. She also founded One Fair Wage to end all subminimum wages in the US.
ROC United went on to launch a campaign that resulted in a major victory in Washington D.C. 76% of DC voters voted to raise the wage for tipped workers from $5 to $16.75 – a 300% increase.
ROC United also campaigned against companies deducting credit card processing fees from worker’s tips and got a bill passed in Philadelphia to make it illegal. They’re now working to make it federal law.
As ROC advanced legislation and ballot measures in 15 states to raise the minimum wage, the oligarchic backlash grew increasingly savage.
One feature of oligarchy is to install the best politicians money can buy. Couple that with anti-labor judges and courts that define money as free speech, and it’s one dollar, one vote. Do the math.
Saru Jayaraman spoke on a panel at a Bioneers Conference.
SJ: There’s this overwhelming euphoria that we’re in a moment of worker power, but the sadness is, even in a moment of worker power, I cannot get some of these state legislators and sometimes federal legislators as well, to even follow where the market is heading. The market is driving wages up, and the state legislators are still stuck in small business. What’s it going to do for small business? Business, business, business, business. That’s what’s changed so dramatically, it’s been such a hard fight for so long. We’ve been trying to move these things. Every time we put it on the ballot, everywhere we win, because frankly red states, blue states, we’ve had people with Confederate T-shirts walk up to us and sign our petitions for $15 and $18 and $20, because everybody in America, most people in America – not the elected officials or the elite circles they run in – but most people in America agree, no matter what state they live in, no matter their political spectrum, if you work, you should be able to have enough money to feed your children and pay the rent and cover your basic costs. Most people believe that. There is no future unless working people’s needs are addressed. [APPLAUSE]
We are the majority. We are the frickin’ majority, the overwhelming number of people in America agree on a wide variety of things. We are not polarized from each other. We are polarized from elected officials who pretend that we are polarized from each other. [CHEERS] [APPLAUSE] And they use that idea of polarization to drive their political agendas.
And so what gives me hope is the potential for issues like this, bread and butter issues, to bring people together, and once they come together, with the Confederate flag and the folks from Cleveland – and I’ve seen it in a room – there’s the possibility to talk about things like race, and slavery, and the history of this country. But the first step is we come together around something we fundamentally agree on, which is everybody who works in this country should be paid.
Host: In 1944 , a year before his death, FDR went on to propose a Second Bill of Rights to complement the political rights won by the American Revolution. He called it an Economic Bill of Rights, because, he said, “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
It included rights such as:
- Gainful employment
- An adequate income for food, shelter and recreation
- Decent housing
- Adequate medical care
- Social Security
- And freedom from unfair competition and monopolies
After the 2008 financial crash catalyzed the Occupy Wall Street movement, it also spawned a renaissance of union organizing. Some of the biggest strikes in history ignited, including the Fight for $15 and 672,000 teachers striking in 21 states.
Yet even in a time of rising worker actions and power, the restaurant industry still towers among the most powerful political forces in statehouses and Washington DC – and it’s bipartisanship in action.
SJ: We just issued a report. 1960 was the first time New York state ever even had a minimum wage. Since that time until today, every time the minimum wage has gone up, tipped workers – who are overwhelmingly women, women of color – have gone down as everybody else went up. We’ve always been the let’s just throw these women under the bus so everybody else gets a raise, over and over and over again. In 2016, when everybody else got $15 an hour in New York state, tipped workers’ wages went down from 83% of the wage to 66% of the wage, a 25% decline in their wages, when everybody else went up. By Democrats! It’s when it happens on the left and they—or I don’t even know if you call it the left, but the other side of the aisle. [LAUGHTER] Right? And they’re supposed to be for working people, and they even are for working people, everybody except you. Because you are up against the most entrenched, powerful trade lobby that there is among the employers.
Host: When we return, we hear how Saru Jayaraman and ROC United took on the lobby that compels workers to pay for their own wage suppression – how a living wage curbs sexual harassment – and how we the people can fulfill an Economic Bill of Rights.
I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers…
Host: As Bob Dylan famously sang, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”
Between 2007 and 2022, the 20 top food industry associations contributed a whopping $33.7 million to federal candidates. Since 2008, they’ve bankrolled $303.2 million to lobby federal agencies and lawmakers. Just three titanic trade groups including the National Restaurant Association have accounted for almost half of these lobbying dollars.
You may not have heard of this “other NRA,” because that’s the way it wants it. As the second largest food industry funder of political campaigns, it means business, says Saru Jayaraman.
SJ: Turns out, about a decade ago, they came to California and Illinois and Texas and Florida, the four largest restaurant industry states, and they got a bill passed in California. It was actually State Senator Alex Padilla at that time who passed the bill, that said every worker in the state of California that works in food service shall be required to take food safety training, and it just so happens the other NRA owns the monopoly food safety training company ServSafe.
So for the last decade, millions and millions of the lowest wage workers in California have been required to pay this food safety training. The other NRA takes that money and then has ballooned their lobbying budget to lobby against those same workers’ wage increases without those workers knowing about it. Millions of workers across this country have been funding their own wage suppression for decades without them knowing about it.
And there are lots of bad lobbies, y’all. There’s fossil fuels, there’s Walmart, there’s the Retail Association. There’s lots of bad lobbies. This lobby took it to another level. They said not only are we going to lobby against people’s interests, we’re going to use those people’s money to lobby against their own interest. How sadistically genius is that?
And with that money and power, totaling about $80 million in revenue a year, they have held a stranglehold on both Democrats and Republicans for decades. And pre-pandemic it was so hard for us. We kept fighting to raise these workers’ wages and we’d win. We won on the ballot in DC. We won on the ballot in Maine. We won in Michigan. Each time the Restaurant Association would use its millions of dollars to convince legislators, often Democrats, to overturn the will of the people.
And beyond that. They went after me. They put my children’s pictures up on attack websites. They follow me around the country. They send me death threats. It’s been 21 years of attack, attack, attack, bullies, bullies with so much money – by the way, that they’ve stolen from low-wage workers to fight this fight.
Host: In the class warfare of oligarchy, the story of the battle is also the battle of the story. Controlling the narrative through mass media and disinformation is a lynchpin of maintaining the corporate power structure. Expect to get framed.
One notorious character who pressures people like Saru to back down is the food, beverage and alcohol industry’s fearsome go-to PR hatchet man…
SJ: If you’ve not heard of Richard Berman, I really encourage you to go look up a 60 Minutes special. I think it’s still on YouTube, and it literally is Dr. Evil. That’s the name of the—that’s the name of the clip on 60 Minutes, because he calls himself Dr. Evil. He was a hired goon. This is a guy who’s almost seven feet tall, hired mobster, basically, for big tobacco for years, and then became the hired goon for restaurants and for food. And this man created attack websites, like I said, put my children’s pictures up on them, took out full-page ads in Wall Street Journal, USA Today, driving people to these websites. Wherever I went, he had a digital ad truck follow me around with a website condemning me. And worse, went after funders or celebrities or anybody who would work with us, went to their homes, bullied them, pressured them—you know, went to some foundation funders’ homes to tell them not to fund us, tried to hack into a foundation website to stop a grant to us, almost got our IRS status revoked.
Then when Trump was in office, these are—He is a member of the restaurant association, so they were trying to shut us down for the whole Trump administration. I take so much pride in all of that, because who am I? I’m like a little flea. [LAUGHS] And they’re this behemoth organization, and for them to spend that much money trying to squash me, something I’m doing is right. [APPLAUSE]
Host: For Saru Jayaraman, it’s very personal. As she works with ROC United in the national fight for a living wage, she’s doubly dedicated to that goal because providing a living wage is key to ending sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.
As the mother of two girls, aged 10 and 13, Saru made a vow that by the time her daughters were old enough to work in restaurants: there would be such drastic transformation in the industry that they would no longer have to endure what so many women suffer through every day just trying to eke out a meager living…
SJ: Everywhere I go, more than one in two people in America have worked in restaurants. And for those of us that are women who’ve worked in restaurants, the trauma of especially living off of tips, and having to put up with anything and everything the customer does to you. You know, young women being told, show more cleavage, dress more sexy, wear tighter clothing so you can make more money in tips, and then during the pandemic, show your face.
I worked with Catharine MacKinnon who’s the professor who coined the term sexual harassment, worked on it, is very legendary law professor, and she has said there’s no industry in the United States with higher levels of sexual harassment than tipped workers in the restaurant industry, including the military, she said. And she said there’s actually no policy she’s ever seen as more effective at cutting it than paying these women an actual wage so that they don’t have to live on the tips from customers, she said, including by the way—she thinks it’s more effective than making sexual harassment illegal, which was her life’s work.
Host: If, as FDR said, “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” then perhaps an Economic Bill of Rights is unfinished business whose time has come. Saru Jayaraman believes these so-called bread-and-butter issues are also the gateway to solving the larger constellation of political crises bedeviling the nation and the world.
She points to the story of a woman leader in ROC United’s office in Washington DC. Already fed up with making $5 an hour, the bartender finally walked away after one last straw landed on a haystack of last straws…
SJ: During the pandemic, a customer came to the bar and said, “Take off your mask; I want to see your face.” She said, “No, I’m sorry, my manager won’t let me.” He said, “I guess we know who’s not going to eat tonight.” That is how customers in so much of the country, you may or may not believe it, see servers. They see them as servants, not as servers. Right? And she left. She left the industry during the pandemic because of things like that. I just—I can’t do it anymore. And she was interviewed by CNN, and she said, “Listen, it’s not a great resignation, it’s a great revolution. We know our worth. We know we’re worth more than $2, or $3, or $4, or $5.”
And they’re winning in the market, if we were to help collectively then institutionalize their gains through policy to say not only are you winning $15 and $20 in the marketplace, but we’re going to stand with you and support you and make that the law. We could also then allow them to have the capacity and wherewithal to say, “I also deserve a livable planet; I also deserve bodily autonomy; I also deserve the safety for my children to go to school and not get shot; I also deserve a safe, prosperous life, like everybody else.” And act out their worth on every other issue.
There will never be the political will in this country to truly win on those issues at the scale we need to win them to save our planet if we don’t address the needs of working people, because working people [APPLAUSE] are the majority of this country – 30 million people, 30 million people still earn under $15 an hour, 30 million people. A third of working people are still working and living in poverty. And we cannot shame them and expect them to vote and go knock on their door and say, what’s wrong with you, unless we address their basic needs.
And that is why I’m here pleading with you to say let us not fight in silos. Let us work together. Let us support these workers in their massive revolt, [and] allow them to support all of us as we change the politics of this country.
Ultimately, ultimately, that we the people, that we the people decide for us, do we say as a country that corporations and the National Restaurant Association, the Rifle Association and fossil fuels, and Monsanto, do they control this country? Do they decide what our future is in the next 250 years? Or is it we the people? I know—I know if we support these workers, it can be we the people who win. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]