You’ve probably heard this statistic before: food service is one of the fastest-growing areas of our economy, and food service work one of the fastest-expanding job fields.
Did you know, though, that only 20 percent of restaurant jobs pay a livable wage?
I worked in restaurants for years, in high school and in college, and well after when I found that the grand promise I’d been sold that a college degree would get me a good job was not true. I worked two jobs at a time while writing for free or very little on the side, and all those jobs weren’t enough to pay my rent.
Lots of people have a story like mine, yet perhaps don’t know statistics like the one above. In her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman blends stories of restaurant workers like me with research on the industry, creating a book that is at once an organizing tool for people seeking to improve their jobs and a wake-up call to people who eat at restaurants and ask their waiter to tell them if the tomatoes are organic, how far the lettuce traveled, and if the chicken was free range, but hardly ever ask about the waiter’s own conditions.
Jayaraman doesn’t want us to feel guilty for eating at restaurants—she shares her own stories of important life moments that took place while dining out. She takes us through her own awakening, when she met the workers from Windows on the World, the restaurant that had been atop New York’s World Trade Center, in the fall of 2011.
She helped those workers found what became the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nationwide coalition of restaurant workers organizing for better conditions. It is the research and the connections she made working at ROC that inform and shape this book.
The concepts of the growing food movement inform this book, concepts such as “Slow Food” and “sustainability” and fairness. We meet restaurateurs who do their best to pay living wages and provide paid sick time, while stocking the best healthy ingredients and not charging an arm and a leg for their meals. And we meet servers who fought back against sexual harassment and racism to become leaders and organizers in their own right.
The core argument that Behind the Kitchen Door makes is that better labor conditions are better for all of us, that it is not simply altruism that should motivate diners to support moves like paid sick days (ROC New York was deeply involved in the successful, though imperfect, campaign to bring a paid sick time law to New York City) and decent pay and training. Two-thirds of restaurant workers, she notes, report working sick—do you want someone sneezing on your burger?
The organizing ROC has done, outside of a traditional union context, relies on multi-pronged strategies that include legal action, legislative battles, community support, and of course, worker action. As it’s become harder and harder for workers to organize into National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned unions, the work of nonunion organizations like ROC becomes more and more central to the broader labor movement.
I’ve covered ROC campaigns in New York and Philadelphia and met workers in ROC T-shirts around the country. I’ve drawn on the work in Behind the Kitchen Door to do my own work as a journalist covering labor and particularly restaurant and fast food work. As we see fast food workers making headlines in city after city with strikes, it’s more important than ever to be informed about the conditions and struggles of those in the restaurant industry.
Jayaraman asks all of us to be more conscious not just about the quality of the food we eat, but also of the workers who serve us that food, and for us to advocate for those workers when we do eat out. We can help, she notes, by making the lives of workers as central to our concept of “food justice” as environmental and health concerns are.
“So, what if consumers demanded that restaurants provide sustainable wages (definitely more than $2.13 an hour) for employees as well as sustainable food for customers? What if we based our dining choices on which restaurants promote diversity and good working conditions along with grass-fed beef and organic strawberries? What if we insisted that a clean kitchen include workers who can afford to take a day off when sick?”
These are the jobs we have, the jobs we can’t outsource. We need to make sure that they’re good jobs.
Join Saru and I to discuss Behind the Kitchen Door, restaurant work, and organizing to make the industry better.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]