Sunday, April 28, 2013

What Foodies Don't Know


“Behind the Kitchen Door,” by Saru Jayaraman, Forward by Eric Schlosser, 2013

Jayaraman is another progressive female Indian voice, who took her professional attorney background and used it to help create a workers’ rights organization for restaurant workers, the “Restaurant Opportunities Center.” (“ROC”), firstly in New York.  ROC is now a national organization – sort of a semi-union for restaurant workers.   I think they are involved in the recent walkouts in New York by fast-food workers.  This book tells the story of how they did it, and what they found out in the process.

Jayaraman started out as a typical middle-class foodie who delighted in eating at restaurants, and of course latched onto the organic/local/sustainability/slow food mantra pushed by executive chefs like Alice Waters.  This view is based on how food is prepared in many countries outside the U.S., and opposes the corporate methods of processed and ‘fast’ food.  However, for her there was a basic disconnect between the food going into her stomach and the workers in the establishment she was eating in.  (See the reception of the book, “The Jungle,” which resulted in food safety laws, but not worker safety laws or union - reviewed below.)

Then 9/11 happened.  A union restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, the “Windows on the World,” was destroyed, and some of the early arriving staff died.  Jayaraman was asked to be an organizer for these restaurant workers, who had no jobs anymore.  ROC is now the leading organization for restaurant workers, having created 2 cooperative restaurants in New York and Detroit; started a school for staff to learn how to move up in the restaurant world; pressured high-end and other restaurants to change their practices; did many detailed surveys showing the inequalities and oppression of the 10 million workers employed in this U.S. restaurant industry; initiated lawsuits; and is instrumental in opposing the $2.13 U.S. national minimum wage for ‘tipped’ workers right now.  ROC’s painfully gathered research statistics alone are worth the price of the book, showing the numbers of restaurant workers, their incomes, their sexual and ethnic make-up, sickness and injury rates.  ROC also has a website that lists restaurants that attempt to treat their workers well. 

Every restaurant worker should read this book.  Anyone who eats in restaurants should read this book.  It is written in kind of a naïve and positive tone, with an analysis that only concentrates on the restaurant industry.  She has a kind of 'kumbaya' attitude, that if workers, good restaurant owners and consumers could all just hold hands and agree, this problem would be solved. ROC does collaborate with organizations that represent workers down the ‘food’ chain, so to speak – slaughterhouse workers and migrant laborers for instance – but that is it.

Jayaraman learned that working conditions are not separate from food, but intimately connected to it. Nearly all restaurant workers do not have sick pay, and most do not have health insurance, so that food-born illnesses come from the restaurant staff because they work while sick, or injured.  Low pay and lack of opportunities creates turnover, which also affects food preparation.  Most restaurant managements don’t care, of course, since saving money is almost the only motivation.  I suspect that some restaurants are organized in such a way that they would go out of business if they provided decent working conditions and decent pay, because they are fundamentally built on cheap wages and poor conditions.  As we used to say in the factory, if you can’t pay us, then you don’t deserve to be in business.  

The U.S. restaurant industry is based on tips, actually.  Almost no other country demands such large tips from customers to float restaurants.  This has allowed a profusion of fast food joints and middle-market places that can get away with paying only minimum wage and less than minimum wage.  Even in high-end restaurants, this affects part of the staffs.  Staff incomes re tips become based on the vagaries of the type of restaurant you work in, the shifts you get, your skin color and ethnic background, your sex, the type of customers you encounter and the quality of your management, or lack thereof.  Various forms of wage and tip theft are practiced, even given all that.Which means restaurant work can be very unstable and precarious. 

Jayraman’s book tells the miserable restaurant working stories of various organizers for ROC in New York, Washington D.C., Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities.  She cites working-class people in LA and Detroit who became restaurant owners and who pay better wages, provide health care or sick days, promote from within without regard to ethnicity or sex, and still try to serve healthful, quality food. 

She pays special attention, as have others like David Roediger, to the very close correlation between skin color or accents and your job at the restaurant.  White people are in the ‘front of the house,” darker people are in the ‘back of the house.” There are exceptions, like Latinos that pass for white or mixed black folks that pass for Latino – but generally restaurants ethnically type-cast every job – waiter, hostess, busser, runner, bartender, barback, cook, sous chef, chef and dishwasher.  The dishwashers in Miami are all Haitians, as you might expect.  They also sexually type-cast every job, for instance limiting female cooks to pastry or salad prep positions, having most waitresses be white women, etc.  Sexual harassment by all-powerful chefs or managers can become the norm in some restaurants. 

Of course, our whole society, even in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ climate, type-casts jobs outside of the restaurant industry.  Who’s driving a cab?  Who puts on roofs?  Who empties the wastebaskets at work?  Who’s a security guard?  Who works at the parking ramp?  Class variation and ethnicity are tightly bound.  

Jayraman’s analysis puts a great emphasis on consumers who pressure restaurants by boycotts and threatened boycotts, which have worked for ROC a number of times.  Given the specific nature of restaurants, this can work on a one on one basis perhaps, but large chains and the hundreds of thousands of establishments cannot all be boycotted.  Which is why social policy has to change.  To do this, the National Restaurant Association, which argues against sick pay, minimum wage increases for tipped workers, health care or any other benefits, would have to be completely defeated on the political terrain.  In so far as the Democratic Party has yet to become very aggressive in almost any pro-labor issue except unemployment extensions and some timid efforts at increasing the minimum wage, what really needs to happen is that unions need to step forward and organize restaurant chains, types of restaurants and geographic restaurant areas.

Jayraman does not talk about unions much, which is suspect. While she might think she competes on the same terrain, ultimately an organization within the restaurant like a union can protect workers better than only outside pressure. It is also doubtful that the character of the U.S. restaurant industry can be changed by paying higher wages, posting jobs internally, ending discrimination based on ethnicity or sex or allowing sick days or health care - since these are some of the very items that have made it what it is today, a profitable behemoth.

(Read prior reviews on this industry, the funny ‘Waiters Rant"; a more general analysis of unstable and low-end employment, “The Precariat,” and the granddaddy of them all, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, all reviewed below.  “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser has not been reviewed.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 28, 2013

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