The U.S. restaurant industry has more than ten million workers, sales revenues of US$683.4 billion annually, and a growth rate of 3.6 percent per year. But despite its monumental size and profitability, the restaurant industry still contains six of the ten lowest paying jobs in the United States.
And the industry’s impressive growth goes unseen by people at the ground level of the industry – the millions of Americans who work to prepare and serve food. Low wages, an absence of basic benefits, discriminatory treatment, and few career advancement opportunities make working in this sector a dead-end for most workers.
“It feels like this industry is one of the last places in the workforce where discrimination continues so blatantly,” says Andrea Lemoins, a fine-dining restaurant worker and co-coordinator at Restaurant Opportunities Center United-Philadelphia.
Spurred by stories of mistreatment and discrimination, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) is determined to fight for the rights of restaurant workers. This non-profit organization has rallied 13,000 restaurant workers, 100 influential employers, and thousands of consumers across the United States to focus on raising restaurant industry standards.
In five short years, ROC United has led 13 workplace campaigns against high-profile restaurants, including The Capital Grille, Red Lobster and Olive Garden, which were charged with exploitative work practices. These campaigns have resulted in over US$7 million for restaurant workers, as well as improved workplace policies. Most recently, ROC United marched to the Capitol as part of their Week of Action campaign.
ROC is also combatting the National Restaurant Association, in an effort to increase minimum wages for tipped employees. The fight, as part of their #LivingOffTips campaign, is an important one; in 1991, the minimum wage for tipped employees was US$2.13. More than two decades later, this amount has not increased, even when indexed against inflation. But, ROC United is continuing the fight to Congress, invigorated by their vital role in the ratification of a statewide minimum wage increase for tipped workers.
Granetta Gorden, of ROC-Chicago has been working in the restaurant industry for five decades. After suffering an accident at her recent place of employment, Granetta asked for time off, but was subsequently fired. Based on her own experience, she joined ROC United to help restaurant workers who feel helpless and alienated by their employers.
ROC United finds that up to 90 percent of all restaurants workers don’t have a single paid sick day, and countless stories like Granetta’s, keep ROC motivated to secure paid sick days for restaurant employees. Lemoins believes forcing unwell workers to work is not just a form of injustice, but a public health issue: “Restaurants are vectors for whatever virus is going around in a given season…everyone in this business has a story of going to work sick.”
ROC United has a three-pronged strategic model. They aim to ‘surround the industry’ through simultaneous actions of:
1. Organization of workplace justice campaigns: these campaigns seek to illuminate the consequences for employers who violate workers legal rights and those restaurants that ROC United believes “take the ‘low-road’ to profitability.”
2. ROC United activity promotes the ‘high road’ to profitability. ROC United partners with employers to engage in cooperative restaurant development, and assists low-income workers transition into higher wage jobs through a workforce development program.
3. The final prong is ROC United’s work in participatory research and policy with the aim of lifting standards industry-wide.
Earlier this year, ROC United released its “Diners’ Guide to Ethical Eating.” The guide outlines the Top 100 revenue-grossing restaurants in the U.S. and their performance in regards to wages, benefits, and workplace practices. Rather than a tool to boycott certain restaurants, the guide highlights “High Road” restaurants that “prove another world is possible and profitable.” If a restaurant does not fare so well in the scoring, ROC United urges consumers to have a conversation with restaurant management, leave behind a note, or send a constructive tweet or Facebook comment.
COLORS is another of ROC-United’s initiatives. Located in New York and Detroit, COLORS restaurants are worker-owned cooperative restaurants. “Just. Good. Food” is the claim of the COLORS, who commit to sourcing local ingredients and exemplary employee practices as well as training and work experience for those seeking a career in the business.
ROC United provides a platform for workers to voice their concerns and get the resources they need to do their jobs better and have the ability to move up in their careers.