Tag: MeToo

Waiting Tables or Harvesting Food, Why Fair Labor Is Still About Civil Rights

Just as the farmworkers used the intersections of race, class, and gender to engage an audience beyond their industry, we must expose the racial and gender biases as part of an effort to raise wages and working conditions for all workers in the food industry and economy-wide.

(Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images)

Dolores Huerta organized some of the most vulnerable workers in this country and, standing alongside them, stood up to their powerful bosses — and won. “When we started to organize farmworkers, people would say to us, ‘They’re poor, they don’t speak English, they’re not citizens. How are you going to possibly organize them?'” Huerta recalls in Dolores, a new documentary film about her life and work. “And, of course, the response that we had to that is, ‘The power is in your body.'”

The lesson of Dolores is that there is inherent power in the collective action of the most vulnerable and marginalized people. Huerta and the United Farm Workers, which she co-founded, built a powerful foundation for farmworkers’ rights by harnessing the energy of intersecting movements for race and gender equity to achieve justice and liberation for farmworkers in the 1960s and ’70s.

Fifty years later, those of us working to organize restaurant workers see tremendous parallels to Huerta and the farmworkers. Just as the farmworkers used the intersections of race, class, and gender inherent in their struggle to engage an audience beyond their industry, we at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United recognize an opportunity to expose the racial and gender biases within this fast-growing industry as part of an effort to raise wages and working conditions for all workers in the industry, and economy-wide.

Today, nearly half of all Americans live near poverty, a rate that is likely to grow, due in no small measure to growth in the lowest-paying sectors of our economy — retail, care and service work, and the restaurant industry.

The restaurant industry alone employs almost 13 million workers. It is one of the largest and fastest-growing private-sector employers in the US and also the largest single source of America’s lowest-paying jobs.

But it wasn’t just poverty wages and economic injustice that created the basis for Huerta and the UFW’s battle on behalf of farmworkers a couple generations ago. Racist exploitation and gender-based violence were ongoing struggles.

As Dolores describes, this largely immigrant and limited-English-speaking workforce lived in housing owned by their employers adjacent to the fields. In speaking up for their rights, they risked not only their jobs and wages, but their housing, as well. Women workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault in the fields.

Dolores portrays some of the UFW’s success as its ability to appeal to people’s consciences across class and race lines.

Reaching across class and race lines has also been important for us. Most of the workers we organize — the 13 million servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, and others in the restaurant industry — have been the main supporters of raising the minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers. However, helping policymakers, the press, and the public understand the importance of raising the minimum wage and not excluding tipped workers has required us to reframe the conversation around not just poverty, but also around race and gender equity and human rights.

All our research has shown that the reason the restaurant industry is so large and fast-growing and yet so low-paying is the money, power, and influence of the National Restaurant Association, which represents many of the Fortune 500 restaurant chains.

The “Other NRA” has successfully lobbied to keep wages for tipped workers at just $2.13 an hour at the federal level. A majority female workforce, tipped restaurant workers suffer from incredible economic insecurity. In 2013, we at the ROC United launched the One Fair Wage campaign to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers, and require that all employers pay workers the full minimum wage with tips on top.

Initially, we focused on changing the pervasive image of tipped restaurant workers as white male servers, working in high-end restaurants and earning hundreds of dollars a night in tips. We wanted allies to understand that the typical tipped worker is more likely to be a woman of color, working a low-wage job at a corporate chain like Denny’s or IHOP, who experiences poverty at three times the rate of the overall workforce, is twice as likely to rely on food stamps, and is paid a wage so low she must rely on customer tips to make ends meet.

But poverty was not enough, and lawmakers and even our allies were not convinced that tipped workers should receive a full, fair minimum wage from their employer until we reframed the issue as one of race and gender inequity.

First, we exposed the slave history of the tipped minimum wage. When it comes to exploitation, farmworkers and restaurant workers share a common legacy: Their industries both depended on the institution of slavery. Tipping originated in feudal Europe, and when the practice was imported to the US shortly after emancipation, restaurant and other business owners embraced tipping. They could employ newly freed black workers without paying them a wage, forcing them to survive on customer tips alone. Despite opposition from a growing populist movement at the time, tipping became the standard practice for the industry.

It’s no wonder then that, like farmworkers, restaurant workers were excluded from critical labor protections. The Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage but omitted restaurant and other service workers.

Today, tipped workers are still subject to a sub-minimum wage system in 43 states, some as low as the $2.13 federal tipped minimum wage. Reframing the issue as a legacy of slavery won us innumerable allies; one legislator said, “Now I get it. We’ve supposedly resolved the question of slavery in this country, so that resolves for me the need to abolish the lower wage for tipped workers.”

We also published research showing that tipped workers are a majority female workforce enduring some of the worst sexual harassment of any industry. Research by ROC United shows that more than two-thirds of all women in the restaurant industry have experienced harassment from management, customers, and co-workers. In fact, the restaurant industry is the largest single source of sexual harassment claims at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Women who rely on tips for their income are coerced into accepting sexual harassment and abuse at work as just part of the job. For too many women, deciding whether to stand up to harassment at work is a choice between earning enough tips to put food on their tables or not.

In seven states — California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Alaska, and Montana — where employers are required to pay the full minimum wage with tips added, our research shows that women face half the rate of sexual harassment as women in states with a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Women in those states know they don’t have to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to earn tips because they feel confident they will receive a full wage from their employer.

When ROC United began highlighting the racist legacy of tipping and the relationship between tipping and sexual harassment in the industry, something shifted. Minimum-wage advocates told ROC they had never supported eliminating the tipped minimum wage until they understood the connection between tips earned and the extreme sexual harassment the women endured. Legislators have told us that they now support One Fair Wage out of concern for their daughters working in the industry.

The explosion of the #MeToo movement in October brought new public awareness to the everyday volume of sexual harassment that people, especially women, experience in the workplace. And shortly afterward, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his support for eliminating the sub-minimum wage in New York — a policy that he realized would cut sexual harassment in half.

Today, we are working with high-profile celebrities and elected officials to move One Fair Wage across the country, one state at a time. We know it won’t be easy. Restaurant workers, other low-wage workers, and their allies today struggle to win support, just as Huerta and the farmworkers did. And then as now, framing the stories of these workers as low-wage earners is not enough. But people from various socioeconomic backgrounds recognize and understand a civil rights struggle when they see one. Thanks to Huerta, the farmworkers were able to reframe their message in this way. We follow in their footsteps.

Solidarity Means Your Struggle Is My Struggle

Since Donald Trump moved into the White House, we’ve seen a couple of responses play out over and over.

One has been despair. It’s easy to see in the Trump administration’s attacks on the most vulnerable in US society — from undocumented immigrants to Muslims to women — and in the increased organizing by the far right, invigorated by Trump’s hateful policies, evidence that the US is in bleak times, with more of them to come.

The other response has been solidarity — from the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, when people rushed to airports to protest his Muslim travel ban, to NFL players taking a knee to protest police brutality, to the #MeToo wave when women stepped forward to talk about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

Today, in the so-called “red states” that voted for Trump, we’re seeing another example of solidarity: Teachers walking out of the classroom to demand the wages and working conditions they deserve, and finding that there are educators in other states who are part of the same fight.

The wave of teachers’ strikes that have struck five states this spring — so far — contradicts just about everything we’re taught in the US: that we and our families are on our own and in it for ourselves; that whether we starve or succeed is totally up to what we decide to make of ourselves.

By contrast, the whole experience of these strikes and protests has been not just teachers working together, but a recognition that their futures are inextricably tied to one another, and they have to struggle together.

As a rural Kentucky social studies teacher explained in an interview with SW, referring to the West Virginia teachers’ strike the month before: “Seeing how those school teachers could come together in solidarity was really awesome. It lets me know that it’s possible for thousands of people to come together for a common cause.”

This is an important point because the society we live in sets up some intimidating obstacles to workers concluding that they have shared interests or that they have a stake in one another’s liberation.

The obstacles include obvious forms of discrimination and bigotry, like racism or sexism or anti-LGBTQ prejudice. But the divisions sown among workers are even more extensive: the unemployed are pitted against the employed; young worker against those who are nearing retirement; low-wage workers who don’t have a union against higher-paid workers who do.

Workers can be isolated from one another within their workplaces for all sorts of reasons.

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The people who have a stake in the system — corporate executives and owners, the politicians who preserve the status quo, the media that back up their ideas — attempt to undercut any inclination toward solidarity as if it was a contagious and deadly disease.

One recent news story shows the depths of the bosses’ cynicism: When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) organized a fast in New York City to demand that fast-food giant Wendy’s adhere to a Fair Food Program that increases wages and protects farmworkers from sexual abuse in the fields, corporate spokesperson Heidi Schauer accused workers of trying to “exploit the positive momentum that has been generated by and for women in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement to advance their interests.”

In case you didn’t believe it the first time, let me clarify: A fast-food corporation that refuses to sign an agreement barring sexual harassment of workers who pick its food — a demand that has been part of the CIW’s campaign for years, by the way — is accusing farmworkers of “exploiting” the Hollywood women who helped initiate the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment.

Some prominent Hollywood female voices of #TimesUp had a few choice words for Wendy’s: downright absurd and unbelievably offensive.

Farmworkers’ organizations early on lent solidarity to women in Hollywood when they initiated #MeToo, and vice versa. As the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote in a statement for the Take Back the Workplace march in Los Angeles last year:

In these moments of despair, and as you cope with scrutiny and criticism because you have bravely chosen to speak out against the harrowing acts that were committed against you, please know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.

When you think about it, if farmworkers were able to win a measure that challenges sexual harassment in the fields, it would go a long way toward helping women in Hollywood achieve their own safe working environments.

In some ways, farmworkers, though they face intense oppression and exploitation, have greater potential power in this regard because the conditions of their work lend themselves more readily to workers organizing collectively and in unity. But I’ll come back to that point.

I talked to someone recently who described the hotel where she worked and all the ways that solidarity was blocked among workers — sometimes in ways that are obvious ploys by management to keep workers divided, and others where the divisions seem less purposeful, but were nonetheless real.

Workers were divided by ethnicity and language. Common sense would suggest that people work better together when there is translation available so they can better understand each other. But then there’s the “danger,” from the bosses’ point of view: workers could better organize together around their common grievances, too.

In one example this hotel worker gave, #MeToo was turned on its head: women aren’t eligible for certain jobs that required them to be alone with hotel guests in their rooms, because management said they worried about women workers’ safety. Those jobs just so happen to be the highest-paying ones at that hotel, and they go exclusively to men.

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It speaks to the power of solidarity that the ruling class finds so many ways of keeping workers from discovering their potential strength when they struggle together.

And this underlines why we can’t rely on solidarity to be automatic or to sustain itself — it has to be continually re-enforced and built upon.

The US has a rich and too-often-hidden history of workplace militants actively taking on divisions and creating their own conditions for true solidarity and power.

In the lead-up to the 1990s War Zone labor struggles in Decatur, Illinois, activists found ways for workers to come together at work and test their collective strength against management — like filing grievances not as individuals, but as groups of workers.

They brought their message to the community, with the slogan “It’s our solidarity versus theirs.” In a town with a fairly clear history of racism and bigotry, white workers came to understand that they needed the Black workers in this fight, so they put concerns about racism up front. Black and white workers marched together on Martin Luther King Day, chanting, “Black and white, unite and fight.”

For a lot of socialists and other activists radicalized by this fierce labor struggle now more than 20 years old, this was the first time we did the solidarity clap — a unison clap that starts slowly in order to make sure everyone has a chance to catch up, getting faster and louder, until the whole room yells “Solidarity!” and shoots their fists in the air.

During the recent teachers’ organizing, they organized actions to test their numbers and strength as a unified group — for instance wearing red shirts one day, blue ones another. They showed state legislators that they were serious and united, and they showed themselves what their actual forces were.

Nor has it been lost on anyone that the vast majority of the educators rebellion across the country are women — and the lowest-paid workers with college degrees in the country, on average.

But the teachers also knew this couldn’t just be a fight for themselves. Teachers in West Virginia set the tone by making sure that they didn’t settle for a raise just for themselves, but for all public-sector workers.

As for the parents — working people affected by the strike — teachers made sure to highlight and engage with what they were facing, too.

The strikers set up food banks for students who rely on school meals, and they emphasized that legislators were turning their backs on both the students who were supposed to learn in underfunded, overcrowded classrooms, while their teachers had to work for poverty wages.

In their 2012 strike, Chicago teachers made their broader goes clear with the slogan: “Our Teaching Conditions Are Your Child’s Learning Conditions.” Striking Chicago teachers also understood that their fight had to be linked to fighting the racism of mass closures of schools in Black neighborhoods.

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When Karl Marx wrote about how the working-class is divided, and those divisions have to be challenged — in his example, he used the case of English and Irish workers — he said that this was “not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”

In other words, fighting racism and sexism isn’t simply a matter of doing the right thing — which is important enough — but also seeing your own liberation as inextricably linked to the liberation of the oppressed and everyone else.

When your co-workers can be abused at work because they are immigrants or women, it increases the chances that you can be abused as well. When workers take up these struggles, their potential as a united, collective force fighting for better conditions for all is stronger. When they don’t, they are weakened, sometimes fatally.

All this is so much clearer when workers are challenging the bosses and solidarity is an absolute necessity in order to win.

But the fight against oppression can’t afford to wait for open struggles. As socialists, we need to make sure that the struggle against racism or sexism doesn’t take a backseat to economic struggles — because they two are fundamentally linked.

The kind of solidarity we’re talking about can happen quickly in times of struggle, but it has to be constantly built and reaffirmed, especially when there’s little sustained struggle.

For socialists at work, that means fighting for workplace free of sexual harassment and racism — whether the battle of the day is counter a sexist joke or racist smear, or to challenge discriminatory treatment.

Without that fight, none of us can be free.