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How a not-for-profit is pushing for better working conditions in restaraunts

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United advocates for better wages and fair working conditions. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is calling attention from government and consumers to improve conditions for restaurant employees across the US.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Domo owner and head chef Gaku Homma Sensei, right, works with a fellow chef in the small kitchen at his restaurant in Denver. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a not-for-profit organization and worker center, is advocating for better wages and fair working conditions.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC UNITED) is helping eaters and workers alike understand that a sustainable food system requires more than just eating locally grown or organic foods. Workers in restaurants across the United States also need better wages, fair and just working conditions, and access to career advancement.

“We cannot have truly sustainable food without sustainable conditions for the workers who touch that food,” said co-founder and co-director Saru Jayaraman in a TED talk this April. She, along with cohort Fekkak Mamdouh created ROC-NY in 2001 in the wake of 9/11 to provide aid to restaurant workers who lost their jobs. Calls for support from other cities led them to create ROC United in 2007 with the stated mission of addressing working conditions and improving wages for the 10 million employees who work in restaurants.

ROC United highlights the fact that some restaurant companies exploit their workers, and it seeks to engage consumers, the government and Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE) in addressing the issue. It calls attention to the fact that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained at US $2.13 an hour for more than two decades. And it notes that these workers are dependent on tips, yet still make only a median wage of US $8.75. Many have part-time hours, and some take the fall when business is slow or people tip less.

ROC-NY had successfully conducted workplace justice campaigns, provided job training and placement, opened a cooperative restaurant and conducted research and policy work when ROC United was created, and this work is now being applied in other cities.

The umbrella organization has won 13 restaurant workplace justice campaigns against exploitative companies, obtaining more than US$7,000,000 and improvements in workplace policies for restaurant workers. It trained more than 1,000 restaurant workers to find good jobs and advancement in the industry and published groundbreaking reports on the restaurant industry. It also created a National Diner’s Guide to inform consumers about particular companies and restaurants’ policies toward workers, making it available as an app for smart phones. Says their website, “using tactics that include organizing workers, litigation and public pressure, we work to demonstrate public consequences for employers that take the ‘low road’ to profitability.” 

Specific successes include assisting workers at Andiamo Restaurant Group in Detroit in obtaining a resolution that includes anti-discrimination measures, complaint-resolution procedures, training, hiring, break, uniform and equipment policies as well as translation of employee materials for non-English speakers. In addition, the organization helped organize 250 workers at the Fireman Hospitality Group 250 to win US$4 million in stolen tips, wages and payments for discrimination and sexual harassment. ROC helped win policy changes covering the company’s 2,000 workers in seven restaurants. 

While working in the field, ROC United is also organizing workers, academics and other allies to conduct comprehensive industry analysis. The participatory research serves as the basis for the organization’s local, state and federal policy advocacy.

Meanwhile, some chefs and restaurant owners are bucking the trend of exploitation, instead providing good conditions and pay. ROC United helps call attention to these standouts. One employer of note, says Jayaraman, is Tom Colicchio, founder of Craft Restaurants. Colicchio operates 25 restaurants across four states, and the company pays sick days and overtime, encourages promotion and offers English classes to workers.

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