Fighting the Other NRA – Resources to Support Food Workers


By Michele Simon

EatDrink Politics • Feb. 15, 2013

This week I’ve been writing about the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) and why we should careabout food workers, in part to bring attention to the new book Behind the Kitchen Door by labor advocate Saru Jayaraman. Today I want to offer practical resources for how to help improve the lives of the 20 million food workers who help us put food on our own tables every day.

Get Informed

In addition to buying the book, Behind the Kitchen Door, the following books and reports will help arm you with the information you need.

American Way Eating: This book by Tracie McMillan opened my eyes to the plight of workers in the three settings where she went undercover for a first-hand experience: the farm fields of California, a Walmart in Michigan, and an Applebee’s in New York City.

Fast Food Nation: This 2001 best-selling book by Eric Schlosser still resonates today, especially the description of the horrific dangers workers face in meat slaughterhouses, as well the exploitation of fast food workers.

Hands that Feed Us: This report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance is the best overview I’ve seen on workers in every sector of the food industry: 1) production – farmworkers; 2) processing – slaughterhouse and other facilities; 3) distribution – warehouse workers; 4) retail – grocery workers; and 5) service – restaurant and other settings.

Serving While Sick: This report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center based on national surveys revealed that 63% of workers reported cooking or serving while sick and that most faced high rates of exposure to dangerous working conditions.

Dime a Day: This report from the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley (which Jayaraman directs) explains how a reasonable increase in the minimum wage would have a minimal impact on food prices. As I have explained, scaremongering about higher food prices is a favorite talking point of the National Restaurant Association, regardless of the facts not supporting lobbyist claims.

Tipped Over the Edge: This report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center documents disturbing gender inequalities in the restaurant industry. (71% of servers are female.) Women are kept in lower paying jobs and suffer from sexual harassment, among other mistreatment.

The Color of Food: This report from the Applied Research Center examines the gender and racial divides across various food sectors, revealing a disturbing pattern of discrimination that keeps women and workers of color at the bottom of the food chain.

Good Food and Good Jobs for All: Building upon the Color of Food, this report connects the dots between the good food movement and the dire need for labor reforms, recommending that we combine efforts.

Get Active

In addition to supporting campaigns to raise the minimum wage, both federally and in cities and states across the nation (sign this petition), please support the following organizations and campaigns:

Coalition for Immokalee Workers: CIW’s hard work on behalf of farmworkers in Florida has resulted in numerous victories against such corporate behemoths as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King. Check out their Fair Food Standards Council, which monitors conditions for tomato growers, their Anti-Slavery Campaign, which helps investigate the worst labor abuses, resulting in criminal charges, and join their March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food from March 3-17.

Fast Food Forward: A movement of New York City fast food workers to raise the minimum wage, which is a paltry $7.25 an hour thanks to the powerful restaurant lobby there.

Food Democracy Now! This small but effective group based in Iowa works with small farmers and others who too often are getting shafted by Big Food. For example, they recently supported striking teamsters at United Natural Foods Incorporated, the largest wholesale distributor of organic and natural foods in the U.S., which is under investigation for 45 violations of federal labor law, including physically threatening immigrant workers in California who were trying to form a union. The strike ended in a successful contract negotiation, in part thanks to the solidarity shown by non-labor organizations.

Food Chain Workers Alliance: this amazing coalition of organizations brings together those who “plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain.”

Restaurant Opportunities Center United: The group co-founded by Saru Jayaraman that works to improve the lives of 10 million restaurant workers. They have numerous locations in cities around the nation, as well as targeted corporate campaigns, such as Dignity at Darden. You can also download their handy Diner’s Guide(and app of course), which ranks the most popular restaurant chains on worker treatment.

Unite Here Food Service: As anyone working on school food knows, food service workers are among the least respected professionals. Unite Here represents food service workers across the U.S. and Canada, in colleges, K-12 schools, corporate cafeterias, airports, stadiums and event centers.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union: UFCW advocates for better conditions for 1.3 million workers in the U.S. and Canada, in grocery and retail stores and in the food processing and meat packing industries. Their largest locals include UFCW Local 1500 in New York City and UFCW Local 770 in Southern California.

Warehouse Workers United: Among the least visible workers are those (mostly immigrants) moving tons of goods through the nation’s busiest ports often under deplorable conditions, en route to huge retailers such as Walmart. In 2011, I spoke on a panel with a warehouse worker who told his harrowing tale of abuse through a translator. He said the workers were treated like cattle. It was a humbling experience.

Finally here are a few tips about dining out that Saru Jayaraman suggests in Behind the Kitchen Door: 1) Talk to the workers to find out how they are treated; 2) ask restaurant managers about their promotion policies; and 3) adopt a definition of “sustainable food” that includes labor practices. As Jayaraman puts it so bluntly: it’s not enough to obsess over corn syrup or farm-raised salmon: “we absolutely must care about the health and sustainability of the workforce preparing, cooking, and serving our meals.”

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