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Whether Waiting Tables or Harvesting Food, Fair Labor Is Still About Civil Rights

Standing up to harassment at work is a choice between earning enough tips to put food on their tables or not.

Dolores Huerta organized some of the most vulnerable workers in this country and, standing alongside them, stood up to their powerful bosses — and won. “When we started to organize farmworkers, people would say to us, ‘They’re poor, they don’t speak English, they’re not citizens. How are you going to possibly organize them?'” Huerta recalls in Dolores, a new documentary film about her life and work. “And, of course, the response that we had to that is, ‘The power is in your body.'”

The lesson of Dolores is that there is inherent power in the collective action of the most vulnerable and marginalized people. Huerta and the United Farm Workers, which she co-founded, built a powerful foundation for farmworkers’ rights by harnessing the energy of intersecting movements for race and gender equity to achieve justice and liberation for farmworkers in the 1960s and ’70s.

Fifty years later, those of us working to organize restaurant workers see tremendous parallels to Huerta and the farmworkers. Just as the farmworkers used the intersections of race, class, and gender inherent in their struggle to engage an audience beyond their industry, we at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United recognize an opportunity to expose the racial and gender biases within this fast-growing industry as part of an effort to raise wages and working conditions for all workers in the industry, and economy-wide.

Today, nearly half of all Americans live near poverty, a rate that is likely to grow, due in no small measure to growth in the lowest-paying sectors of our economy — retail, care and service work, and the restaurant industry.

The restaurant industry alone employs almost 13 million workers. It is one of the largest and fastest-growing private-sector employers in the US and also the largest single source of America’s lowest-paying jobs.

But it wasn’t just poverty wages and economic injustice that created the basis for Huerta and the UFW’s battle on behalf of farmworkers a couple generations ago. Racist exploitation and gender-based violence were ongoing struggles.

As Dolores describes, this largely immigrant and limited-English-speaking workforce lived in housing owned by their employers adjacent to the fields. In speaking up for their rights, they risked not only their jobs and wages, but their housing, as well. Women workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault in the fields.

Dolores portrays some of the UFW’s success as its ability to appeal to people’s consciences across class and race lines.

Reaching across class and race lines has also been important for us. Most of the workers we organize — the 13 million servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, and others in the restaurant industry — have been the main supporters of raising the minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers. However, helping policymakers, the press, and the public understand the importance of raising the minimum wage and not excluding tipped workers has required us to reframe the conversation around not just poverty, but also around race and gender equity and human rights.

All our research has shown that the reason the restaurant industry is so large and fast-growing and yet so low-paying is the money, power, and influence of the National Restaurant Association, which represents many of the Fortune 500 restaurant chains.

The “Other NRA” has successfully lobbied to keep wages for tipped workers at just $2.13 an hour at the federal level. A majority female workforce, tipped restaurant workers suffer from incredible economic insecurity. In 2013, we at the ROC United launched the One Fair Wage campaign to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers, and require that all employers pay workers the full minimum wage with tips on top.

Initially, we focused on changing the pervasive image of tipped restaurant workers as white male servers, working in high-end restaurants and earning hundreds of dollars a night in tips. We wanted allies to understand that the typical tipped worker is more likely to be a woman of color, working a low-wage job at a corporate chain like Denny’s or IHOP, who experiences poverty at three times the rate of the overall workforce, is twice as likely to rely on food stamps, and is paid a wage so low she must rely on customer tips to make ends meet.

But poverty was not enough, and lawmakers and even our allies were not convinced that tipped workers should receive a full, fair minimum wage from their employer until we reframed the issue as one of race and gender inequity.

First, we exposed the slave history of the tipped minimum wage. When it comes to exploitation, farmworkers and restaurant workers share a common legacy: Their industries both depended on the institution of slavery. Tipping originated in feudal Europe, and when the practice was imported to the US shortly after emancipation, restaurant and other business owners embraced tipping. They could employ newly freed black workers without paying them a wage, forcing them to survive on customer tips alone. Despite opposition from a growing populist movement at the time, tipping became the standard practice for the industry.

It’s no wonder then that, like farmworkers, restaurant workers were excluded from critical labor protections. The Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage but omitted restaurant and other service workers.

Today, tipped workers are still subject to a sub-minimum wage system in 43 states, some as low as the $2.13 federal tipped minimum wage. Reframing the issue as a legacy of slavery won us innumerable allies; one legislator said, “Now I get it. We’ve supposedly resolved the question of slavery in this country, so that resolves for me the need to abolish the lower wage for tipped workers.”

We also published research showing that tipped workers are a majority female workforce enduring some of the worst sexual harassment of any industry. Research by ROC United shows that more than two-thirds of all women in the restaurant industry have experienced harassment from management, customers, and co-workers. In fact, the restaurant industry is the largest single source of sexual harassment claims at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Women who rely on tips for their income are coerced into accepting sexual harassment and abuse at work as just part of the job. For too many women, deciding whether to stand up to harassment at work is a choice between earning enough tips to put food on their tables or not.

In seven states — California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Alaska, and Montana — where employers are required to pay the full minimum wage with tips added, our research shows that women face half the rate of sexual harassment as women in states with a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Women in those states know they don’t have to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to earn tips because they feel confident they will receive a full wage from their employer.

When ROC United began highlighting the racist legacy of tipping and the relationship between tipping and sexual harassment in the industry, something shifted. Minimum-wage advocates told ROC they had never supported eliminating the tipped minimum wage until they understood the connection between tips earned and the extreme sexual harassment the women endured. Legislators have told us that they now support One Fair Wage out of concern for their daughters working in the industry.

The explosion of the #MeToo movement in October brought new public awareness to the everyday volume of sexual harassment that people, especially women, experience in the workplace. And shortly afterward, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his support for eliminating the sub-minimum wage in New York — a policy that he realized would cut sexual harassment in half.

Today, we are working with high-profile celebrities and elected officials to move One Fair Wage across the country, one state at a time. We know it won’t be easy. Restaurant workers, other low-wage workers, and their allies today struggle to win support, just as Huerta and the farmworkers did. And then as now, framing the stories of these workers as low-wage earners is not enough. But people from various socioeconomic backgrounds recognize and understand a civil rights struggle when they see one. Thanks to Huerta, the farmworkers were able to reframe their message in this way. We follow in their footsteps.

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