Fall 2019 Journal: A Conversation with Saru Jayaraman

This piece is the sixth (and last) article featured in our Fall 2019 journal. For the complete journal, please see the “Journal Archive” tab above.

Edited by: Spencer Bowen, Althea Lyness-Fernandez, and Mai Sistla

Saru Jayaraman is Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and Co-Founder and President of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), a non-profit worker and organizing center that advocates for improved wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She has received a variety of awards including San Francisco Chronicle’s 2019 Visionary of the Year, CNN’s “Top 10 Visionary Women”, and 2014 Champion of Change at the White House. She is the author of three books The New Urban Immigrant Workforce, Behind the Kitchen Door: The People Who Make and Serve Your Food, and Forked: A New Standard of American Dining all of which have received widespread press coverage and critical acclaim.

We note that after the culmination of this interview, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the One Fair Wage Bill, a bill created in part from the Food Labor Research Center’s work that would eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. It was the first time since Emancipation that either house of Congress has moved to change this sub-minimum wage.

The below transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

BPPJ: Would you mind introducing yourself in your own words?

S. JAYARAMAN: Sure. My name is Saru Jayaraman. I am the director of the Food Labor Research Center here at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. I’m also the co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United [ROC United], which is a national organization of restaurant workers, restaurant owners, and consumers working together for better wages and working conditions in the industry.

BPPJ:  What were you doing prior to Goldman and ROC?

S. JAYARAMAN: Well I was in law school and graduate school. I was at the Yale Law School and at the Harvard Kennedy School for a master’s in public policy. Shortly after law school and graduate school I was working at an immigrant worker organizing center out in Long Island, New York as an attorney and an organizer.

When 9/11 happened, there was a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center – Tower One – called “Windows on the World.” On that morning, 73 workers died in the restaurant and about 13,000 restaurant workers lost their jobs in New York City following the tragedy. So I was asked as a very young attorney and organizer to start a new relief center in the aftermath of the tragedy for the workers who had lost their jobs and for the families of the 73 victims. And what started as a relief center grew into the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

BPPJ: Did that spark your passion for organizing?

S. JAYARAMAN: No, I had already been doing what you might call “pre-stage organizing” in college and graduate school. I then got a little more formal training with Marshall Ganz at the Kennedy School. The work that I was doing at the immigrant worker organizing center was thinking about how law and organizing worked together. So when 9/11 happened and I was asked to start this new initiative, it was an opportunity to put into place everything that I knew and believed and thought about organizing within an enormous industry. [The restaurant industry] is the nation’s second largest private sector workforce and the fastest growing industry in America.

BPPJ: When did you flip the switch to making activism and organizing your full time work?  Did you go to graduate school specifically to help build your skills in organizing?

S. JAYARAMAN: Yeah. I cannot remember ever wanting to do anything else. Well maybe when I was very young I wanted to be an architect or something like that. But by high school, especially at the end of high school, I knew this would be my life’s passion. I didn’t call it organizing at the time, but certainly knew social change would be my life’s work.

BPPJ: How do you explain what you do at the Labor Policy Center to someone who, even just hearing that name, throws up walls because that sounds like part of the “ivory tower”?

S. JAYARAMAN: There are 20 million people in the United States who sow, harvest, pick, prepare, transport, cook, and serve our food across America. One in six private sector American workers work in food. And unfortunately, despite their size and growth and the fact that we all rely on them to eat, they are the lowest paid people in America and they can’t actually afford to put food on their own family’s tables. And so the work of this center and my life’s work is studying, advocating, working to change that.

BPPJ: Why have you settled on this combination of ROC and also being here at Berkeley doing more formal research? What appeals to you about that mix?

S. JAYARAMAN: It happened somewhat organically – no pun intended! My life’s work for 17 years was ROC. The work expanded into thinking about making federal policy change and changing the narrative. We were realizing that we were up against such a huge barrier in the form of the National Restaurant Association and the way that they’ve brainwashed so much of America – certainly restaurant owners – into thinking there’s only one way of doing business. And that raising wages would hurt industry and hurt consumers and hurt workers themselves. It became clear over the years that we needed to do more than the things that ROC on its own was able to do. We needed to be able to publish. We needed a platform to be able to change hearts and minds. We needed the ability to speak from an academic perspective and to change policymakers’ minds. And so switching over to Berkeley has allowed me to have the platform that I need to create the foundation for that change to happen.

BPPJ: Would you mind sketching out the outlines of your point of view versus a National Restaurant Association point of view?

S. JAYARAMAN: Yeah. So I mentioned that in the whole food system there are about 20 million workers and they are the lowest paid workers in America. They’re everything from farm workers, meat and poultry processing workers, transportation and distribution workers, and food, retail, and restaurant workers. Within that 20 million workers, 13 million are in one industry: the restaurant industry. And the restaurant industry is not just the biggest chunk of the food system. It’s also the number one fastest growing private sector employer in the United States.

Unfortunately it is also the lowest paying employer within the food system and within the nation as a whole. And so here you’ve got the largest and fastest growing industry in America with the absolute bottom of the barrel lowest paying jobs. And that is the reason why I’ve decided to commit my life’s work to this. It’s important not just to think about restaurants or even to think about food or what we eat. Frankly, it’s important for the future of our country, because if the largest and fastest growing industry has the lowest paying jobs, we are growing the low wage floor of the economy from a nation of one in three working Americans working full-time and living in poverty to a nation closer to one in two working Americans working full-time and living in poverty.

For policy students or business students – or frankly anybody thinking about the future of America – when you get to a point where half of the people working can’t afford to feed themselves or to consume, you have to ask yourself, what does that do to our GDP? What does that do to our democracy? Fascists rise in the context of extreme inequality and suffering. So our basic point of view is that the $2.13 wage that exists in our country for restaurant workers, that is a legacy of slavery and a source of terrible sexual harassment, is unsustainable, untenable, unworkable, unethical, immoral, and not good business practice. And so we are working to change it.

The [National] Restaurant Association’s argument is, well, nobody actually earns $2.13 an hour, they earn much more in tips. There’s no reason to pay these folks an actual wage. And if you forced us to pay our workers a wage we would go out of business. Restaurants would fail. Menu prices would be too high, workers would lose their jobs. And all of the evidence from our state of California – which does not have a $2.13 wage and actually requires everybody to be paid a full wage with tips on top – the fact that our industry is booming and growing faster than any other state, and the fact that tipping is higher and sexual harassment is cut in half, provides clear evidence that what the National Restaurant Association is saying is just not true.

BPPJ: Why do you think such a clear case study is not convincing to some people?

S. JAYARAMAN: It’s not that it’s not convincing. It’s that the Restaurant Association, like President Trump, relies on fear as a tremendous motivating factor. Fear of change is fundamentally the barrier. It’s the ways in which fear of change is exploited by a very well-funded trade lobby that has a very big platform and lots of money to spread their messaging both to workers and to employers and uses fear of change combined with their resources to drive that message. So even if you go to the East Coast and you say, “California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska are all doing this and succeeding”, they will still try to override that very clear evidence with, “Oh, well, those are outliers. You know, actually restaurants are failing in California. You know, nobody can rely on California as an example, it’s so different from the rest of the country.” We say, “What about Montana and Alaska, Minnesota?” These are all not California but it’s just that they’re louder and their fear tactics are greater than ours.

BPPJ: As someone who both went to policy school and now researches and teaches at a policy school, what do you see as the strengths of the degree and what are some of the drawbacks?

S. JAYARAMAN: That’s a great question. I will say I definitely enjoyed my policy degree – not even comparable –  20,000 times more than my law degree. The things that I was studying and learning and talking about were much more relevant to what I wanted to do in the world. They’re much more timely. They’re much more applicable to actually creating change. And what they used to say at the Kennedy School, and perhaps you hear this at the Goldman School, is that through policy school, you’re exposed to so many different things. You learn to not necessarily in two years become an expert in anything, but rather to learn how to speak with some intelligence about a wide variety of things. After that, you’re able to really hone in on something you want to work on and become an expert with the skills and tools you’ve learned here, not necessarily the deep issue expertise you’ve gained here. So that’s the real advantage – having those skills and tools that you can apply to any issue.

The disadvantage is that I still think it’s not well-known enough. What is a public policy degree? What is it useful for? What ways can it be used? And I think the avenues for people coming out of any school – law school, policy school – are not clear enough. I always say I find law to be a particularly problematic degree because it’s one of the few degrees where, as opposed to a degree meant to open many doors and avenues for you, law very much closes the doors because you go through law school and then you’re told, “Well, you have to practice law in some form, you have to.” And even within practicing law you’re very much pushed to do corporate law or to clerk for a judge or do certain things.

With policy school, I would say the doors are much more open, but they’re not clear. I think people are presented with the possibility of becoming a policy expert, working at a think tank, perhaps working in government of some kind, or doing consulting. But the avenues around organizing and advocacy and other things that are possible to do with a policy degree are not as clear. It’s not just policy schools’ fault. It’s also that those avenues in this country are not as valued as legitimate forms of work and forms of social change. You know in the ‘60s, going into social movement organizing work was what everybody did. It was considered not just cool and hip, but frankly legitimate and credible. And I think that’s an avenue that is missing for students and unfortunately it limits people’s options to consulting, bureaucracy, government, and think tanks.

BPPJ: Even as someone with a pretty clear vision of what you wanted to do, did you struggle with that coming out of law and policy school?

S. JAYARAMAN: Absolutely, yeah. I went to Yale and people say there are more public interest people coming out of Yale than other law schools. But the amount of pressure I felt, you know, you have to practice law and if you’re going to practice law, you should do corporate at least for a little while to understand it. I felt [that pressure], thank God I withstood it. But I think my main comment for both law and policy students is to try to, as much as possible, stay true to yourself throughout the process. Figure out what you know you want to do and you don’t want to do and definitely be open to the options. But continuously check your gut as to whether that is really what you want to do. And maybe most importantly go and do informational interviews and have experiences that show you…what they [people in specific careers] do on a day to day basis. How much do they interact with people and how much do you want that? How much do they actually create change and how much do you want that? Because I think a lot of people feel like, I can create change in these avenues. And then get stuck believing that’s the only way to create change when there’s many more ways.

BPPJ: Why is it important to you to work with students and teach a class here and there in addition to your other work?

S. JAYARAMAN: Well in addition to trying to raise wages and working conditions and provide research and grounding for policymakers for 20 million workers across America, my other big passion –  and how I think these issues that I care about will change – is by increasing the amount of organizing and social movement activity that is occurring in America. And to me, looking and studying social movement history and now teaching it at Goldman – what you see is consistently throughout the history of the world, social movements have been led by young people and by students. And that is missing right now in our world and missing in a time when we need it the most of any time I can think of in my lifetime, certainly. There isn’t the kind of mass student activity, certainly not sustained student activity, that we need to see in this moment. And so I’m very passionate about building that class that I’m teaching right now – Social Movements and Organizing and Nonviolent Direct Action Theory – into a whole initiative. We are trying to provide students at Berkeley and [students] nationwide not just training and social movement nonviolent direct action organizing, but once again building up the idea in students’ minds that this is a credible, legitimate, professional, highly-respected avenue of real full-time work, which is organizing masses of people for change.

BPPJ: Is there a class here that you wish you could take as a student at the policy school? Or a professor you’d really want to work with?

S. JAYARAMAN: I’d love to take many people’s classes and learn more. I’d love to take Professor Rucker Johnson’s classes, I’d love to take Professor Reich’s classes. At the law school there’s many folks that I’d love to take classes with. There’s a lot happening at Berkeley that’s truly fabulous. What I have found is that being able to work with students at Haas and professors at Haas around creating the business case and financial models for employers to figure out how to move to higher wages and better working conditions has been valuable. Working with the law school, we did a joint class last semester on #MeToo and #TimesUp, so looking at the intersections between law and organizing and movement building with regard to sexual harassment in the workplace. Working with other Goldman folks to think about these issues of inequality in the Labor Center on campus. It’s been an amazing experience of collaboration to be able to again advance the needs, interests, and research around the workers in our food system.

BPPJ: Looking back on it, is there something that has surprised you about your time as a Goldman faculty member?

S. JAYARAMAN: At the Goldman School, I’ve been surprised at how many Goldman students I’ve had in my classes who have amazing analytical skills and tools that they’ve learned at the Goldman School, but don’t actually know how you advance policy. Many don’t actually know how you think about a policy change that needs to happen and then work with the field, the community, people on the ground, people most affected, and policymakers to make, to pass, a bill. Which to me should be a part of being in policy school and why I feel so passionately about what I’m teaching – social movements, organizing, nonviolent direct action. What we teach in my course is not just about organizing, but how you use organizing and social movements and nonviolent direct action to actually advance policy through a legislature (local, state, or federal legislature) and how that’s happened through the history of the world and in the United States. So that has been surprising. You know, over time Marshall’s class at the Kennedy School, actually while I was there, moved from being an elective to being a required course so that students did learn how to use these organizing tools to advance policy. And I would hope over time that we would do the same thing here at Goldman.

BPPJ: As we’re awash in presidential candidates it seems like talking about minimum wages is way more central than it was even four years ago. What are you encouraged by in that debate and where do you think many progressive candidates are still falling short?

S. JAYARAMAN: I think part of the reason why it’s become so central is two big things: One, we’re reaching the highest levels of income inequality in the history of our nation. It is unsustainable on many levels. People cannot afford to consume and I think capitalists like the Jeff Bezoses of the world are starting to notice and starting to say, “Okay, I’m going to pay $15 [an hour] because I realize I need people to buy my products.” So it’s encouraging that it has finally become an issue, frankly, unfortunately, because of necessity and crisis. So that’s one part of why it’s part of the conversation.

The second part of the reason it’s part of the conversation is I think finally a lot of people who are left of the aisle are waking up to the fact that Trump really won because they ignored these issues for way too long. That they pursued a neoliberal, business-first, capitalist agenda at the expense of the hundreds of millions of workers struggling to feed their families, who are working multiple jobs, and who frankly either didn’t vote or felt so disgusted with both parties that they thought Trump represented something totally different. So Trump was a wake-up call. So I think that the state, the really very fragile state of inequality and our long-term sustainability as an economy and as a country is one thing and then Trump’s election is another thing. Both of which have driven income inequality to the forefront of the current presidential election.

And whereas four years ago candidates were not talking to us, almost every candidate is talking to us right now. “Us” meaning the Food Labor Research Center and ROC. You know, really wanting our research, wanting to know what we have to say, wanting us to do events with them and bring workers to speak with them. And so it’s a totally different world. And yet we still have a $2.13 wage, even though a lot of those people who are running for office are in Congress right now and can push for the minimum wage to go up. And so I think to answer your question, what they are missing is that it can no longer be about just talking about these issues and expecting people to vote for you because you talk about these issues. You’ve got to understand that at this point until you deliver, people are still going to be as dejected as they’ve been.

BPPJ: Is there anyone in public life who you think is doing a really exemplary job not just talking about this but kind of pushing the issue?

S. JAYARAMAN: There are state and local legislators who are doing amazing work. And frankly in an environment like this, that is often where change happens. So there are 16 states where we worked with legislators to introduce bills and we (again meaning the Food Labor Research Center) convened legislators from these 16 states last year and that resulted in the 16 states introducing bills to fully eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. Among those states were legislators from Vermont. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas is a legislator in Vermont who moved this bill even when her peers said it was too hard and it’s now gaining traction in Vermont. And some form of it, I think, will pass. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf and the Democratic leadership in the state legislature have been moving the most aggressive One Fair Wage bill, which is the most aggressive bill to raise wages in the country. They have a Tea Party Republican-controlled state legislature but that hasn’t stopped them from doing a lot of work to advance the issue publicly and using it to mobilize people to actually change the state legislature to win the issue.

That’s an example of really using an issue and mobilizing around it, not just the legislators but the field – all the grassroots groups including ROC Pennsylvania – mobilizing around it to ultimately win it through both policy and politics. And then there are great legislators in Illinois and in New Jersey, Shavonda Sumter in New Jersey who advanced this bill. In Massachusetts, we’ve got amazing women in the legislature who’ve been advancing this for the last several years. So, fabulous legislators at the state and local level. If you’re going to push me to name some federal legislators I will.

BPPJ: I don’t mean to!

S. JAYARAMAN: I mean, it is important. So the bill that proposes $15 and full elimination of the sub-minimum wage has been led for the last several years by Representative Bobby Scott from Virginia in the House, and Senator Patty Murray from Washington in the Senate. This year it’s being sponsored by Representative Bobby Scott in the House and Senator Bernie Sanders in the Senate. All of those people I’ve named are people who’ve put their money where their mouth is, or put their actions where their mouth is. And I’m not endorsing anybody for President but I will say for my folks, for the workers that I’ve worked with for the last 17 years, they are just not going to go for talk. They want to see people who’ve actually done this stuff for the last many decades.

BPPJ: What’s something fun or new that the ROC or Labor Center are working on?

S. JAYARAMAN: Gosh so much! I’ll talk about both. On the Labor Center side, I mentioned we’re going out on this initiative to train students across the country in social movement history theory and nonviolent direct action. We’re looking at how Ella Baker did training with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] students, through SNCC, and trying to replicate what she did through boot camps and summer camps for students across the country and organizing a nonviolent direct action and social movement. So that’s exciting, I’m so excited about that. The potential to build out student organizing is thrilling to me.

And then on the ROC side, working through the auspices of Berkeley, I think the stuff that we’re doing with Haas to move a lot of restaurant owners towards what we call the “high road to profitability,” actually providing them with the tools and the help to make the change. It has helped us grow our “high road” restaurant association to 770 restaurant companies ranging from Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio, Alice Waters – really, really high profile chefs around the country – to small mom and pop restaurants that are working with us.

I’ll just give you an example. Yesterday I met with a very, very well-known restaurant company in D.C. that had pretty publicly opposed our work to raise the minimum wage.

And we had a two hour meeting with the partners yesterday where they said: “We didn’t trust you before. We read your book. We’re coming around. We want to figure this out with you because we see that the old ways aren’t working and we want to figure out how to reduce turnover.” So being able to meet with [the Haas School of Business] and others, and show the business case that you can reduce turnover by providing higher wages and better working conditions has been really exciting.

And then maybe another exciting piece I’ll just mention, which again is a joint project of the Food Labor Research Center and ROC, is a big initiative here in the Bay Area around racial equity in the restaurant industry. We’ve done three years of study and intervention on racial equity, racial segregation, how workers of color are segregated into lower paying segments of the industry like fast food and casual [restaurants]. Even if they’re in fine dining, they’re in lower paying positions: bussers, runners, dishwashers, and cooks, as opposed to servers and bartenders, who in a San Francisco or Berkeley can earn upwards of one hundred thousand dollars a year. They’re the [higher-paid] minority of workers, but that minority is unfortunately held almost exclusively by white men. And so we’ve been doing implicit bias training and testing with over 100 restaurant owners, interviews with workers, implicit bias training and testing with consumers. All of that has led the City of Oakland to work with us on an incentives policy that would provide incentives to restaurant owners who work with us to desegregate racially. Part of this initiative is also a building that we’ve bought together with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights right across from the Fruitvale BART station which will house our largest restaurant training facility in the country, along with a restorative justice center and housing clinic, all in the same building. That will allow thousands of workers to move up the ladder into livable wage jobs. So addressing implicit bias on the part of the employers, creating a pipeline of workers, and then policy incentives for more employers to actually hire these workers and move away from the racially-segregated workplaces they’ve had is a super exciting local project. That’s a combination of Berkeley and ROC.

BPPJ: I have one more question for you. You’re very well-spoken. You’re in the public eye a lot. You’re featured on shows and winning awards from the Chronicle [2019 Visionary of the Year]. But still, time is finite. You get five minutes to speak in most cases. How do you think about what to prioritize when you speak?

S. JAYARAMAN: Well every audience is different, you know, and we’ve done, because we’ve done this for so long, we’ve kind of tested and found out what works with different audiences. So with legislators, you know, really talking about the legacy of slavery that is the source of the sub-minimum wage and the sexual harassment can be the most impactful. Right now talking about the ways in which getting away from a two-dollar wage is a way for states to respond to Trump has been a really effective way to talk to legislators. So that’s legislators.

With the public, we’ve actually done message testing and polling as to what works the best. With the public, the very simple argument, with Republican and Democratic voters alike, that no one should have to work full time and not be able to feed their kids just works. With everybody. Across the board. It’s a simple argument of fairness. You don’t have to get into any of the other stuff.

With employers it’s a very different message. It’s a message of how this is better for business, how they can cut turnover, have a really much more stable staff and thus make their customers more happy, is the message that works.

With students and allies, you know, I think really painting a picture and a vision for how truly transformative change can happen, not just reform but transformative change. Meaning, looking at the moments in history where we’ve won the greatest, most transformative policies. So, the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration, the Great Society, the War on Poverty. Those were moments where there was tremendous unrest from people on the ground, which should say to students that it isn’t just about analyzing policy and talking to legislators and having a lobbyist. That is not how you actually achieve the most transformative change. If you look at history, transformative change comes from outside of the political system, from people rising up in masses and demanding much bigger change. And the more you’re able to, the more you’re able to organize, the larger masses of people you’re able to have demand things, the more transformative change you can achieve. So it really depends on the audience. If I had, you know, five minutes with students it would be to appeal to this notion that students have played historically such a critical role in winning those most transformative changes in our history.

I do want to add one more thing on the ‘Why Berkeley and ROC’ work combination. I think there’s a sense that if you’re at Berkeley you do Berkeley stuff. But as a public university, I think it’s imperative for us to not just provide the research and information for change, but to also begin to provide the tools and to partner with organizations that are actually implementing change, if not being engaged in change ourselves. So, that’s why for me I could not personally just hand over research and analysis and say, “Here, this is why you should think about this differently or do something different.” I feel like there’s too much at stake for me not to also be involved in working with others outside of Berkeley to make that change happen. So that’s why both are important to me.

BPPJ: I think I would argue that that is very Berkeley.

S. JAYARAMAN: Well, if you look back at the history of Berkeley, that is very Berkeley.

BPPJ: Yeah. Awesome. Well thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.