When the World Trade Center went down, one of the casualties was the Windows on the World restaurant, including 72 of its employees who died that day. But casualties also included the other restaurant workers who didn’t get back their jobs when the restaurant reopened, replaced by a lower paid, non-union restaurant work force. A new organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Center was formed, in part to help the displaced workers, though it quickly expanded to address a range of worker rights issues. In 2008, the New York organization further expanded to include affiliate groups in several other cities, including Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Maine, and Michigan. One of the dates ROC highlighted, as part of its advocacy, was 2-13, related to the $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers.

I participated at a press conference a few days ago, on Monday, Feb. 14th, where the L.A. affiliate of ROC released a study by several UCLA researchers entitled “Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality and Opportunity in the Nation’s Largest Restaurant Industry.” The report documents how L.A.’s 265,000 restaurant workers have primarily “low-wage jobs with little access to benefits, and serious consequences for consumers.”

One consumer concern is that many of those workers can’t take time off when they’re sick. The national ROC group released a report in October entitled Serving while Sick that surveyed 4300 workers in several cities and found that two thirds of the workers “reported preparing, cooking, and serving food while sick with contagious illnesses such as the flu. Workers reported that they could not afford to take a day off, either because they would be penalized for doing so, or because their wages were so low that they could not afford to take an unpaid day or two off from work.”

The low wages and lack of health benefits presents another set of social injustices in this major industry in L.A. and other metropolitan centers. This is compounded by an additional race and class divide – the differences between the “back of the restaurant” (where the dishwashing, prepping, table clearing, and quick order cooking take place) and the “front of the restaurant” (waiters and waitresses and bartenders) are employed. The back end workers are predominantly immigrants and people of color, the front end are white. The overall wages are low for most everyone – back and front – but the lowest wages and poorest working conditions are in the back.

Then why should food justice advocates champion the efforts of the ROC to enable restaurant workers to have living wages, better working conditions, and basic respect for the work. I have a student who is exploring sustainability issues for restaurants and many of the restaurants that seek to be more sustainable (though not all) do not factor in the conditions of those who work in the restaurants. Similar to the issues around farming and growing food, those who work in restaurants and those who work the farms tend to be marginal to the agendas of good food, local food, and healthy food advocates.

Restaurant workers should be, need to be seen as an important food justice constituency. And worker justice has to be a core part of the language and action agendas for those focused on the food system. You can’t have healthy food, even if it’s locally sourced and organic, if the food is prepared and handled by someone who has the flu and isn’t allowed and can’t afford to take off from work.

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