Hundreds of fast food workers from about 60 cities nationwide struck work Aug. 29 demanding a minimum wage of $15-an-hour and union privileges. Oakland, Calif. resident Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, said labor rights leaders are going to continue maintaining the pressure on restaurant owners until their employees are given a living wage. She spoke to NAM health editor Viji Sundaram the day after the strike.
NAM: Were you satisfied with Thursday’s turnout? And have you heard of any retaliatory action against those who struck work?
Saru Jayaraman: It was a great turnout, and no, we haven’t heard of any retaliatory action so far.
NAM: What is the mission of your organization, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-U) and why did you start it?
SJ: We started it after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when some 72 employees of the Windows on the World restaurant, housed in the World Trade Center, lost their lives and many were displaced.
NAM: The SEUI organized yesterday’s strike, even though less than one percent of restaurant workers are unionized. Will it help employees achieve what they are trying to get by joining a union?
SJ: Unions are not the only way to organize. My organization, ROC-U is trying to improve working conditions for restaurant workers. We have 10,000 members in 30 cities and around 100 employer partners, and several consumer members, and we have led and won 13 major campaigns against exploitation in high-profile restaurant companies.
NAM: The U.S. restaurant industry employs around 10 million people. How many of them are from communities of color?
SJ: I wouldn’t know how many of the employees are from communities of color. I can only guess that it is about half.
But here’s what I do know: The restaurant industry is the largest employer of minimum wage employees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The median age of a worker is in the mid-30s, and one in four of them is a parent. Most of them earn as little as $7.25 an hour, and 90 percent of them get no health insurance or paid sick leave. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, the worker should be paid at least $15 an hour. That’s what we are asking for.
NAM: What was the impetus for this recent strike?
SJ: The Occupy Movement (in 2011) started the conversation about the one percent owning everything, and 99 percent owning little or nothing. The Walmart strike earlier this year for better wages and living conditions influenced fast food workers, among whom pressure had been building for a long time, to say enough is enough.
NAM: So what now?
SJ: We are going to continue to build momentum around wages. Consumers are beginning to join in the struggle. We think the protests will grow from fast food restaurant employees to those in full service restaurants.
This is going to be a huge issue in the mid-term elections.