Part of the Series
Moyers and Company
You’ve heard about the wave of recent protests calling on fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King to raise wages for their employees, who are forced to live on next to nothing. But did you know that many workers in sit-down restaurants may be faring even worse?
That’s because back in 1991, the National Restaurant Association passed around enough campaign contributions to persuade Congress to set the federal minimum wage for waiters, busboys and bartenders at only $2.13 an hour. And it has never gone up.
They claim that tips are additional income that make up the difference. But tips are random and often meager. So much so that restaurant workers are twice as likely as other Americans to be on public assistance.
This week, Bill speaks with Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, about the group’s fight for better wages and working conditions for America’s 10 million restaurant workers.
“In any other context, what is it called when an employer practically doesn’t pay their workers, full-time workers? It’s called slavery,” Saru Jayaraman tells Moyers. “… And so how is it that a major industry has basically convinced America, convinced Congress, that they practically shouldn’t have to pay their workers at all? It’s purely money and power. And their control over our legislators.”
Because ROC has been making headway, they’ve got powerful enemies, including Rick Berman, dubbed “Dr. Evil” by 60 Minutes, a DC-based lawyer and public relations man who specializes in industry-funded attack campaigns against health and safety regulations, the minimum wage and organized labor.
BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company: all work and no pay— food workers fight for a living wage.
SARU JAYARAMAN: How is it that a major industry has basically convinced America, convinced Congress, that they practically shouldn’t have to pay their workers at all? It’s purely money and power. And their control over our legislators.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. If you wonder why so many Americans doing essential but menial work at low wages never seem to get a break, here’s an answer for you. That’s how it’s intended to be. Not by nature, or the market, or from any lack of character or will on the part of workers. No, the fact is: our system is organized against them. The very thing workers most want and need – a fair wage – is the very thing the controlling interests don’t want them to have. And by controlling interests, I mean the owners of capital, who were emboldened even further this week by the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision giving monied interests more opportunity to rig the political system against everyday Americans.
Case in point: you’ve heard about the wave of protests against fast food chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s where employees are forced to live on next to nothing.
Workers in regular, sit-down restaurants are also penalized. Because in the 1990’s, the National Restaurant Association – often known as “the other NRA” – passed around enough campaign contributions to shall we say persuade Congress to set the federal minimum wage for waiters, busboys, and bartenders at only $2.13 an hour. $2.13 an hour. The NRA claims that tips are additional income that make up the difference. But tips are random and often meager, and restaurant workers struggling to earn a living are twice as likely to be on public assistance.
In other words, the people who run the system expect taxpayers to subsidize profits with welfare for their poorly-paid employees.
Which could explain why this man is smiling. He’s getting rich re-enforcing the system’s grip, making sure those working people don’t get a break. Rick Berman’s his name. Officially, he’s a lawyer and lobbyist with his own public relations company, but his real job is as a professional bully who makes a ton of money beating up on vulnerable people. How bad is he? Well, a few years ago, Morley Safer described Berman, his special line of work, and the enemies he has made in a “60 Minutes” profile entitled, “Dr. Evil.”
MORLEY SAFER in 60 Minutes: It’s difficult to find someone who provokes as much venom as Rick Berman.
DR. MICHAEL JACOBSON in 60 Minutes: He’s a one-man goon squad for any company that’s willing to hire him.
MORLEY SAFER in 60 Minutes: Dr. Michael Jacobson heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a healthy food advocacy group.
DR. MICHAEL JACOBSON in 60 Minutes: Berman is against every single measure, no matter how sensible. He’d have no restrictions on tobacco advertising, junk foods galore in schools, no minimum wage. He wants to leave corporate America unfettered of any regulations that protect the public’s health.
BILL MOYERS: This master of smoke and mirrors figured out some years ago that to do the dirty work of corporate America you need to create front groups with high-falutin’ names like Center for Consumer Freedom and the Employment Policies Institute. These sham outfits, funded by deep pockets, provide cover for industries and trade groups that want to bust organized labor and kill off health and safety regulations that protect workers and consumers. And because of our tax laws, written by the owners of capital and their rented legislators, Rick Berman gets to hide where the cash for that black magic is coming from.
Over the years, however, some of his clients have been outed. Sources say they have included Philip Morris, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, the Marriott Corporation and Tyson Foods, as well as restaurants willing to fork over a pile to a hit man like Berman while paying their employees as little as possible.
SARU JAYARAMAN: Because restaurant workers, they serve us, and they should be able to put food on their own tables.
BILL MOYERS: Saru Jayaraman is one of Rick Berman’s primary targets. She’s co-founder and co-director of ROC-United.
BILL MOYERS: That’s the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, whose 13,000 members across the country are fighting for better wages and working conditions. Because they’ve been making headway, they’ve got powerful enemies. Berman and his clients have gone nuclear, running full page attack ads against raising the minimum wage, funding academic studies built on faulty premises, and creating a website called ROCExposed.com that constantly vilifies the workers’ cause.
Saru Jayarman is with me now. She’s also director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of this book, “Behind the Kitchen Door.” Welcome.
SARU JAYARAMAN: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: Have you been surprised by the intensity of the attacks upon your workers?
SARU JAYARAMAN: You know, the truth is that Richard Berman’s been following us around for the last decade, trying to shut us down on behalf of the National Restaurant Association. What has happened over the last year is that they’ve definitely heated up the pressure, trying to kill our message, whatever way they can. And his operation, his M.O., is to do it by killing the messenger rather than the message, because the truth is, it’s very hard to argue with a message of “nobody should be earning $2.13 an hour.” That’s as fundamental as it is.
BILL MOYERS: But he has personalized it, as you say, against you, attacking your credibility and your motives. Why are you doing this? I mean, when you graduated from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and Yale Law School, you could’ve had your choice of positions in lead institutions. Why did you commit to this work?
SARU JAYARAMAN: My parents are immigrants. They definitely struggled in this country. And I’ve seen too many families of my friends and neighbors struggle. And I just knew that I couldn’t live in a world where millions of people are hungry and don’t feel like they get respect on the job for jobs that are hard, that really, you know, require professional skills, like the restaurant industry.
BILL MOYERS: Well, your opponents have been taking out ads, as you know, in “Fox News,” full-page ads in “The New York Times” and “The Wall Street Journal.” Is their campaign blunting your message?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Not at all. The harder they try to call us names, the more I think it’s realized that we’re saying something that’s getting on their nerves, something that they don’t want to be heard. And that something is that they as an industry have gotten away now for decades saying that they shouldn’t have to pay their own workers’ wages. In fact, we, the customer, should pay their workers’ wages for them. Because when you’ve lobbied for a wage as low as $2.13 an hour, these workers actually aren’t receiving wages at all.
And they’re living completely off their tips. Which means literally, we as customers are paying their wages, not the employer. And the Restaurant Association ultimately does not want people to know that they’ve gotten away with this immense boondoggle.
BILL MOYERS: Do they have a point when they say that an increase in the minimum wage will mean a cut in service and higher costs?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Well, these are their two primary arguments: one, that it will kill jobs, two, that it will make the cost of food go up. So on that first one, killing jobs. There are actually seven states in the United States that have the same wage for tipped and non-tipped workers. They range from somewhere around $8.00 and $9.50 an hour. You can go to California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota. All seven states have faster industry growth rates than the restaurant industry nationally. And in fact, we recently did a regression, looked at the states with the higher minimum wages for tipped workers, we found that they have higher sales per capita in the restaurant industry.
So we would argue that evidence shows that you could actually do better as an industry, faster industry growth, more jobs, if you treat your workers better. On that second argument that the cost of food will go up. We used USDA methodology. And we applied the current bill that’s moving through Congress to every worker along the food chain, from farm workers, to meat and poultry processing workers, to restaurant workers. And we assume that every employer along the food chain would pass on 100 percent of the cost of the wage increase to their purchaser. The title of the report is “A Dime a Day,” because it would cost the average American household at most $0.10 more for all food bought outside the home. That’s groceries and restaurants alike. So we’re talking pennies more on your hamburger when you eat out, for 30 million workers to come out of poverty.
BILL MOYERS: But what do you say to the small-business owner, who says “Gee I run a very small place, we— our waiters depend upon the tips at the counter. We just can’t afford it. We’d go out of business if you require us to raise their wages.”
SARU JAYARAMAN: I would say a couple of things. First of all, you as a small business, you are actually being cheated by these very large corporations that are running the show, setting the standards, raking in millions of profits and screwing you by getting away with very— you know— very, very large, high-volume business and setting standards that require you to have to pay for very high rates of turnover. Our industry has the highest rates of employee turnover of any industry in the United States. I would say— I can point you to plenty of small businesses around the country that actually pay their workers a livable wage and have managed to cut their turnover in half, in some cases, completely out, because they treat their workers well.
I would also say that nobody’s expecting you to change your wages overnight. We’re talking about policies that would phase in a minimum wage increase. A minimum wage increase for both your servers and the back of the house. But the last and most important thing I would say is this: no customer in America believes when they leave a tip that they are leaving a wage for a worker. Nobody believes that they’re paying a wage. People think they’re paying a tip on top of a wage. We don’t think about this in any other context except restaurants. We believe somehow that because they’re getting tips, they shouldn’t get a wage. It’s not true in any other context. And that is because of the power of this industry.
BILL MOYERS: Knowing that I was going to talk to you, I did ask a few friends and neighbors in New York City. I said, “Do you assume when you leave that tip that the workers are going to get it?” And they said, “Why yes, we do.”
SARU JAYARAMAN: Most people do. Most people believe that when they leave a tip, it goes entirely to that worker that they’re tipping. There are so many things that happen. First of all, that worker has to share the tip with probably 20 or 30 other people in the restaurant. Often management illegally takes a portion of the tips.
BILL MOYERS: Illegally?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Illegally. The tips are meant to make up the difference between that lower minimum wage of $2.13 and the overall minimum wage of $7.25. But the U.S. Department of Labor reports an 80 percent violation rate with regard to employers actually making sure that tips make up that difference. And what results? Seventy percent of tipped workers in America are women.
And they work at the IHOP and the Applebee’s and the Olive Garden. Their median wage, including tips, is under $9 an hour. They suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and they use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. So we’re talking about poverty-wage workers, including their tips.
BILL MOYERS: To a great extent, this is a woman’s issue, isn’t it?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Oh, absolutely. Millions of women, most women in America start their work life as a young woman in high school or college or graduate school working in restaurants. Many go on to something else, millions stay in this industry. But whether they stay or they go on, because these women are forced to live off their tips because their wages are so low, they go to taxes, and they’re not getting their income from their employer, but rather from the consumer. They’re forced to put up with whatever the customer might do to them, however they may touch them or treat them or talk to them.
And as a result, we have the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States. Seven percent of American women work in restaurants. But 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the E.E.O.C. come from the restaurant industry. So we are exposing young women to the world of work in this industry in which they can rely completely for their income off tips, in which they can be touched and treated any which way. It’s a demeaning situation to be in when you earn $2.13 an hour as a woman and you are completely reliant off customers’ largess, off the mercy of the clientele for your income, 100 percent. You’re living off tips.
BILL MOYERS: I said in the introduction that this is essential work, and it is. It’s not going to be outsourced to China—
SARU JAYARAMAN: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: —or to Mexico or to India. Right?
SARU JAYARAMAN: That’s right. These are jobs that are growing. These are the jobs that are available now. These are the jobs that people being laid off from any other sector or anybody entering the workforce, a young person, an immigrant, people coming out of prison, these are the jobs that are available. They could be great jobs, they should be, these are professions. Many of the people we’re talking about want to be treated as professionals, want to move up, want to learn, want to move up in the industry to livable-wage jobs. And these are mostly adults. Many with college educations.
BILL MOYERS: So how are you recommending we change it? I hear that you’re adopting a new strategy.
SARU JAYARAMAN: Absolutely. We need to eliminate the system of a lower wage for tipped workers all together. So there is a bill moving through Congress that would raise the overall minimum wage to $10.10 and get tipped workers to 70 percent of that, or $7. That’s a good start, because it allows these workers some base wage, $7—
BILL MOYERS: Is it sufficient?
SARU JAYARAMAN: It’s not sufficient. $7, as we all know, is a poverty wage. And as long as the tipped worker’s wage is $7, that’s the true minimum wage in our country. So if there’s an effort or a concern to raise the wage above $7, we’ve got to get tipped workers there too. So there is momentum now in states across the country. Ballot measures, and legislation, to actually get all workers to the same base wage.
BILL MOYERS: You have two ballot initiatives going, one in the District of Columbia and—
SARU JAYARAMAN: And one in Michigan.
BILL MOYERS: And what are they about?
SARU JAYARAMAN: So in Michigan, we’re demanding that the wage go up to at least $10.10 and that the wage for tipped workers also be $10.10. And the language we’re using is that no employer should be able to pay less than the minimum wage.
BILL MOYERS: Even the diner?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Even the diner. Because the toy store next door, or the retail shop next door, they also have to pay $10.10. There’s no reason that the diners shouldn’t. In Washington D.C., we’re saying $12.50 for everybody, tipped, and non-tipped.
There’s legislation moving in Florida and Pennsylvania also to eliminate the lower minimum wage for tipped workers. So the nation is moving towards eliminating the lower wage for tipped workers. Not eliminating tips. And I want to be clear about that.
BILL MOYERS: What is a fair wage in this field?
SARU JAYARAMAN: I strongly believe that you would need $18 to $25 an hour to survive in the United States, in a city like New York or almost anywhere in this country to pay for childcare, to pay for transportation, but at the very least, to have a stable-base wage that you can count on, that doesn’t fluctuate the way tips do, that doesn’t go up and down. I mean, your rent doesn’t go up and down, your bills don’t go up and down, your childcare expenses don’t go up and down. But for these workers, their income fluctuates from hour to hour, week to week, month to month.
So whether they’re working as a diner server or as a fine-dining server— you know, there are certainly ways to move up and certainly you can get a better income in a fine-dining restaurant where you can make a livable wage. They’re few and far between. For all of these workers, what they really need is a stable base wage that they can count on.
BILL MOYERS: What happens if we don’t raise the minimum wage for these workers?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Their lives are going to be unending poverty, unstable family incomes, constant reliance on public assistance. Our lives as customers— what does it mean for us as customers? It means being served by workers who are too poor or often too sick to take care of themselves and thus take care of us well. It means exposing ourselves to health risks. Because when you live off of tips and you don’t have paid sick days, as most of these workers do not, if your income comes from tips, you’re going to go to work to get those tips regardless of what condition they’re in, right? You’re going to go to work with H1N1— swine flu.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
SARU JAYARAMAN: You’re going to go to work— we had a member in Florida testify that she worked with typhoid fever for three weeks. There’s a company, I’m sure you’ve heard of, called Darden, which is the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, they own Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille Steakhouse. In 2011, they announced the partnership with Michelle Obama saying that they were going to provide healthy food for kids at the Olive Garden. Well, at that same moment, a server was forced to work with hepatitis A in Fayetteville, North Carolina Olive Garden. And with a wage as low as $2.13 an hour, she had to go to work to get those tips.
Well, 3,000 people were exposed to hepatitis A as a result of that incident, had to get tested by the local county health department, filed a consumer class action against the restaurant, and won. So we ask, how healthy can your food really be for your kids at the Olive Garden if they’re going to be exposed to hepatitis A?
BILL MOYERS: Do these tipped workers get benefits as a matter of practice?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Ninety percent of restaurant workers in America do not have access to healthcare or paid sick days. Which means, according to our research, two-thirds of restaurant workers report cooking, preparing, and serving our food when they’re sick. The Center for Disease Control has said that 50 to 80 percent of all norovirus outbreaks in the United States can be traced back to sick restaurant workers.
BILL MOYERS: So what hope is there for these people—
SARU JAYARAMAN: Oh.
BILL MOYERS: —who have— nott any money to contribute to political campaigns?
SARU JAYARAMAN: There’s so much hope, Bill, there’s so much hope. So I want to give you one example. A couple of years ago, this happened in Washington D.C. The people fought for a local paid-sick-days ordinance. Meaning that every worker in the District of Columbia would be guaranteed that if they were sick, they could take a day off. Now, the Restaurant Association has been fighting this. In fact, they’ve introduced legislation, together with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, declaring that citizens in those states should not have the right to pass paid sick days ordinances, even if they vote for them. So they tried this. But in the District of Columbia, we did pass a local paid sick days ordinance.
At the last minute, behind-closed-door deal, they said, “Tipped workers should be left out.” Restaurant workers got together with allies, consumers, said, “Enough is enough.” We fought and we won. We overcame the power of the National Restaurant Association. We got paid sick days for tipped workers in the District of Columbia.
BILL MOYERS: What have you learned about how our system works?
SARU JAYARAMAN: I’ve learned again and again and again that definitely there are moneyed forces that have controlled our system. But also that there’s nothing that the people cannot achieve once they expose those forces and once they resist. That we can actually overcome even the most hardened, moneyed lobbyists in Washington D.C. or in states around the country. Because ultimately, if we are a true democracy, we cannot cede, we cannot cede our democratic powers to those people. We cannot throw up our hands and say, “Well, money controls Washington, money controls politics, I’m going to sit back.” We cannot cede that because then there’s no point in living in a democracy, truly. We—
BILL MOYERS: Is there a point to living in a democracy?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. We still have some power to say, “We will not put up with this.” We still have some power to say, “This is outrageous. It is outrageous that working people should have to put up with this kind of misery. It is outrageous that working people should have to pay each other’s wages rather than these multi-million-dollar restaurant chains paying their own workers’ wages.”
BILL MOYERS: So there is a moral imperative?
SARU JAYARAMAN: Absolutely, yes. Think about it this way. This is the only industry on Earth, really in any nation on Earth, that has gotten away with saying, “We practically shouldn’t pay our workers at all. Customers should pay our workers’ wages. We shouldn’t have to pay our workers’ wages.” In any other context, what is it called when an employer practically doesn’t pay their workers, full-time workers? It’s called slavery.
And so how is it that a major industry has basically convinced America, convinced Congress, that they practically shouldn’t have to pay their workers at all? It’s purely money and power. And their control over our legislators. So obviously, Congress hasn’t been listening to the populace, Republican or Democratic alike. And that’s what we need to regain control over.
BILL MOYERS: How can my viewers find out more about what you’re doing and your organization?
SARU JAYARAMAN: They should go to LivingOffTips.com, where we have all kinds of information. And especially, we would encourage people in the state of Michigan and Washington D.C., Florida, and Pennsylvania, get involved. Help support these ballot initiatives and this legislation. In other states, let’s move it there too. Let’s move this everywhere.
BILL MOYERS: And I want to invite my viewers to write us at BillMoyers.com and tell us their experiences as waiters and waitresses. Saru, thank you very much.
SARU JAYARAMAN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Fortunately for any of us who believe this country should be about fair play and justice, Saru Jayaraman and those waiters, busboys, and cooks reinforce our faith that organized people can counter organized money. But they are going to need all the hope and heart they can muster.
And so are we, because the fight to save our democracy from the clutches of plutocrats just got harder. Here in New York State, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo, of the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, and legislators from both parties killed a commission investigating political corruption. They also killed a promising plan for a more level playing field in state elections. And they did so while handing wealthy individuals in wealthy communities— those are the biggest contributors to elections— some very big tax breaks.
And in Washington, as you’ve heard by now, in the McCutcheon case, the Supreme Court five, the pro-corporate bloc, struck down limits on how much money can be given to candidates, parties and political action committees. One prominent right-winger says the justices merely “reinstated the First Amendment for all Americans.” Sure. By doubling down on their earlier ruling in the infamous Citizens United case equating money with speech, the justices have actually decreed that you’re entitled to all the free speech you can buy. You’ll be on equal footing with the Koch brothers if you have their money.
The prevailing myth in America has been that the rich have a right to buy more homes, more cars, more gizmos, vacations and leisure, but they don’t have the right to buy more democracy. The Supreme Court just laid that myth to rest, and the new Gilded Age roars in triumph. But we, the people, shouldn’t cower or give in to despair. Those restaurant workers— they’re not quitting. And they’ve summoned a spirit from deep within our past, when those early insurgents stood against imperial authority, convinced that when injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty.
At our website, BillMoyers.com, we’ll show you some ways you can get involved. And there’s more about the fight for a living wage. That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.
Producer: Gina Kim. Segment Producer: Lena Shemel. Editor: Sikay Tang. Photo:Rachel Carter on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0
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