Restaurant Workers Demand Dignity Now


Some workers are sick and tired of their labor conditions under the Darden Restaurant Group, which owns over 1,900 eateries, e.g., Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden, with a payroll of more than 150,000 employees across the US and Canada. This situation is driving the Dignity at Darden campaign under the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United (ROC-U), a worker advocacy group, active online and at workplaces for better labor conditions.

“We provide all employees with competitive compensation and benefit programs that are consistent with our peer group of companies, and we follow all federal and state labor laws,” said Rich Jeffers, DRG spokesman, via email. The Dignity at Darden campaign disagrees.

Its central aim is in part to raise DRG employees’ wages. To this end, ROC-U is working to eliminate the federal subminimum wage for tipped workers (bartenders and servers) of $2.13 per hour, whereby such employees depend on the tips of their customers.

According to ROC-U, two in three tipped workers are women, mainly servers, half of them age 30 or older. One in three of the subminimum wage tipped workers are parents, with one in six of them forced to use free-lunch programs for their kids; and one in seven workers relying on food stamps.

ROC-United is organizing employees and their advocates to require employers to pay workers full state minimum wage before tips. Seven western states and Guam have done just that, according to the Labor Department.

In mid-April, ROC-U released a report, “Picking up the NRA’s Tab: The Public Cost of Low Wages in the Restaurant Industry”: (

“With annual revenues of over $91 million, 750 staff, and nearly 40 congressional lobbyists, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) is one of the most powerful business lobbies in Congress and state legislatures” whose members include the DRG, according to the ROC-U report.

It continues. “Opposing raises for tipped workers — more than two-thirds of whom are women — is a particular priority for the NRA. As the leading force keeping the federal tipped minimum wage at $2.13 and lower than the regular minimum wage in 43 states, the NRA bears special responsibility for the gender inequities and sexual harassment produced by maintaining a two-tiered wage system which has resulted in the restaurant industry being the single largest source of sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

Forcing DRG companies to schedule ample hours for restaurant employees to earn sufficient wages to pay the costs of living is also a priority, according to Lev Hirschhorn, 25, a workplace justice organizer for ROC-U of Philadelphia. “For many restaurant workers the bosses demand full availability but only schedule them for 18 hours of paid work a week,” he said, “not enough to pay their bills.”

The federal Raise the Wage Act of 2015, would increase the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to $12 per hour by 2020, and end the subminimum wage for tipped employees.

In sum, minimum wage earners occupy the bottom rungs of the US economy, and are largely union-free. “Roughly 95% or more of the workers that would benefit from a minimum wage increase to $12 are not members of a labor union,” David Cooper, an Economic Policy Institute economist, said via email.

To contextualize the current situation, 20.1% of US wage and salary workers were union members versus in 1983 versus 11.3% in 2013, according to the Labor Department. That’s roughly a decline of about half in union membership.

Activists rallied on August 4 with a “Night Out for Safety and Liberation,” protesting at the National Restaurant Association’s Washington, DC, and state headquarters “to call out Darden and the NRA's role in perpetuating poverty in communities through low wages and anti-worker lobbying,” said Maria Moyette, ROC-U spokeswoman. “The action was a broad coalition effort of social and racial justice groups, spearheaded by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Folks were tweeting with #SafetyIs and #NOSL15.”

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2015

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