Category Archives: In The News

Hope in the Face of Tragedy: Media Coverage of ROC’s 10th Anniversary

73 low-wage immigrant workers died at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, Tower 1 on September 11th, 2001, and about 300 workers lost their jobs in that restaurant. Out of this tragedy, ROC was born.  This September 11th we commemorated ten years of building a restaurant worker movement as a legacy for our fallen brothers and sisters of Windows on the World. Below is a listing of the media coverage.


CNN: “9/11: Remember Windows on the World

U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Program: “Helping Others: A Restaurant’s Post-September 11 Legacy

VotoLatino: “Witness to 9/11 Remembers

Free Speech Radio News: “Restaurant established by WTC workers after 9/11 spurs national movement

Huffington Post: “Former Windows On The World Employees Become Advocates For Fair Treatment Of Service Workers

2011 ROC-United National Convening in COLORSLINES

Real Diversity Looks Like Inclusion

By Rinku Sen at COLORLINES

A few weeks ago I spoke to the national alliance Voices for America’s Children. During the Q&A someone asked me, “Could you tell us what real diversity looks like?” This person had filled out many of those funder diversity forms that asks the racial, gender and class identity of all your staff, board, and participants, but she noted that just being able to count off some colored faces doesn’t mean you’re actually meeting the needs of communities of color.

The next week, I was with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, of which I am on the board, for their annual membership convening in Chicago. ROC-United is a deeply multiracial organization, reflecting the full range of people working in the industry. The organization focuses on high-end restaurants, where most front-of-the-house workers are white, and most back-of-the-house workers are immigrants. In addition to those folks, it also organizes black workers who are shut out of high-end restaurants altogether and largely relegated to fast food. ROC-United members helped me identify markers of equity and inclusion within organizations, which is key to generating equity and inclusion out in the world. So here are three signs you’re on the right track:

1. In a truly inclusive situation, everybody sets the agenda and participates. When people come to the party, they influence the venue, the food, the music and the games. They speak. They bring friends. Members chose ROC-United’s national campaigns to fight for paid sick leave and to raise the tipped workers’ federal minimum wage. At each step, members weighed the information they had (much of which they collected themselves through the largest national survey of restaurant workers in existence), discussed pros and cons, and then decided where to invest their energies and how. At this convening, restaurant workers set up the technology, cleaned up after dinner, ran small group discussions, analyzed the industry, showed videos they had made, served on the board of directors and so on. And they spent a lot of time thanking people, going so far as to bow down to each other. There are certainly leadership roles and structures—everything is not flat. But one can figure out without trying too hard how the structures work, and can rise in the organization by showing up and taking part.

2. People stand up for each other. A lot of political education takes place in truly inclusive settings. That’s the process by which people learn about why everyone else is in the room with them. I watched a set of video interviews with various members—Nepalese, Mexican, African American—and in each one, the person acknowledged the hardships that people of other colors face in the industry. At these gatherings, it is not uncommon to hear five times a day these two sentences: “We’re ROC-United. That means we look out for each other.” The organizational chant is very simple, just four easy lines, and at last count they can do it in a dozen languages. Of course, you can’t just say that; you have to actually do it. This isn’t just cosmetic. Standing up for each other shows in ROC’s very strategy, which is designed to back up all of the people who are trying to do the right thing in this industry.

3. It is messy and hilarious and joyful. There’s so much angst around working across race. When we also have violent reminders of how many people are threatened by multiculturalism, as we did in Oslo just two weeks after this gathering, a lot of heaviness can accompany the work. But being in truly inclusive groups is liberating. It’s fun. It doesn’t look seamless because it’s not—individuals and groups have to make decisions all the time about which way to go, because inertia generally drives us away from each other. But in the chaos of working things out, we learn, our sense of humor expands, and we laugh, even in the thick of our suffering. You can see that fun in action at the flash mob that ROC United did at the Taste of Chicago this summer. They had little time to practice, and, frankly, they’re a dancing mess. But everybody’s in here, the Millennials and the baby boomers; the U.S. born and the immigrants; the front-of-the-house and the back. They had a damn good time, and so did the crowds watching them.

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Windows of the World Workers Stay United
by Dania Rajendra for the Brooklyn Rail

On Sunday, June 26, dozens of restaurant workers in tall paper toques and flimsy plastic aprons charged into the Taste of Chicago. Despite their get up and a smattering of signs, they didn’t really garner attention until they broke into an original choreographed dance, singing their own words to the Black Eyed Peas version of “The Time of My Life”: “We’re serving the meals of our lives / And we never worked so hard before / And we swear, this is true / And we owe it all to food…We’re! Tired! Of! Making! Low Wages! We’re telling you.” (Of course it’s on YouTube.)

Members and staff of the Restaurant Opportunities Center sung, spun, and shimmied in the hot Chicago sunshine—but the Federal minimum wage for tipped workers hasn’t moved since 1991. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, restaurant workers in 10 states still make that amount, $2.13 an hour, and workers in eight more make under $3.00. In New York City, ROC’s birthplace and the country’s most “foodie” American city, workers make $5.00 plus tips. In all states, employers are obligated to pay workers when their tips, combined with the base wage, don’t bring them to the national minimum of $7.25 an hour. Compliance, advocates say, is uneven at best. ROC research has found nationwide and industry-wide problems with stolen wages, uncompensated injuries, and racial discrimination.

In February, Representative Donna Edwards (4th District of Maryland) introduced the WAGES Act (H.R. 631) which would move the tipped minimum from $2.13 to $5.50 over two years, then peg it at 70 percent of the minimum wage. But the National Restaurant Association, which noted in February that “restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $604 billion this year,” opposes the bill. That’s why ROC brought their roving, musical awareness-raising flash dance mob, and its stationary follow up, the Restaurant Worker Olympics, to Chicago, home of the NRA. 

But I-can’t-dance theatrics are just part of ROC’s serious push to revolutionize the conditions of the restaurant workers. It’s been a long road since 9/11, when ROC’s precursor organization was started by Local 100 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (now UNITE HERE) to serve the surviving workers at Windows on the World, who were members of Local 100 until 9/11 destroyed their workplace and ended their employment (thus terminating their union membership). They were the lucky ones: 73 Windows on the World workers died in the disaster.

In the 10 years since 9/11, ROC has grown from a workers center serving New York restaurant employees to a national organization dedicated to improving conditions in the entire restaurant industry. It’s their work, said ROC-United Co-director Saru Jayaraman, to “build a legacy in their name.” Jayaraman pointed out that the restaurant industry is the largest and fastest-growing in the country, but restaurant workers “make the lowest wages in the United States. When our industry changes, it will change the whole economy.” But, she added, “We have a long way to go.”

Fekkak Mamdouh, who worked at Windows on the World until it was destroyed then served as a Red Cross caseworker in the 9/11 aftermath, has co-directed ROC with Jayaraman from the very beginning. “Before 9/11, I didn’t think there was discrimination here. I thought other people were lazy,” he said. Mamdouh is from Morocco and a Muslim, and he added that the tragedy and the subsequent racial profiling by the government, the media, and by people around him highlighted the realities of race and class in the U.S. “I could see the obstacles,” and ROC, he said, was a way of “doing something positive.

Many of Mamdouh’s Windows coworkers have fallen away since then, but some original activists remain. One, Shailesh Sreshtra, comprised one half of the New York team competing in the Busser’s Maze, the first event of the first-ever Restaurant Worker Olympics, which followed the flash mob that sunny Sunday in Chicago. Sresthra, who said he has been a server for 13 years, loped over overturned milk crates to bring New York the bronze. He emigrated from Nepal and later explained that his home country won a flat, nationwide service charge that goes directly to service workers this year, after a two-decade-long fight.

ROC activists say their national expansion will help win exactly that type of widespread change. The group now has chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Michigan, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., in addition to New York. Industry-wide changes they’re pushing for include paid time off for sick workers. A bill guaranteeing just that to New York workers garnered support in the City Council until Speaker Christine Quinn squashed it in October.

Each ROC affiliate follows the New York model of organizing based on policy advocacy, lawsuits, and training, but each affiliate can add their own concerns. For example, in New Orleans, activists are hoping to win passage of a bill in their City Council that would give workers a seven-day grace period to reclaim their jobs once a mandatory evacuation order ends. “Mass transit is good for getting people out of the city” before a hurricane, explained ROC-New Orleans advisory board member Darrin Browder,”but [it’s] not good at getting them back in.” He added that restaurant workers often have to get jobs wherever they find themselves, to finance their return to New Orleans. Access to healthy food is a big issue for restaurant workers and their communities in nearly every city where ROC has a chapter, and especially so in Detroit, where the local chapter is local legislation on the issue. They’re also the next chapter to add a Colors, the ROC-started, worker-owned cooperative restaurant that serves locally sourced, sustainably grown food. The restaurant is scheduled to open September 12.

In New York, Colors is in talks with the USDA to host a farmer’s market for food stamp recipients, which is designed to address the limited access low-income residents face all over the country, Jayaraman said. Colors hosts some classes offered by the Culinary Arts program at Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College, which in turn, offers credit for those ROC activists looking to parlay their ROC training into a college degree. In September, Colors will open for lunch, cooked and served by students supervised by ROC and KCC faculty, and at new, lower prices, “so our own worker-owners [can] bring their families to eat there,” Jayaraman said. After Detroit, New Orleans is scheduled to open the third location, in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The national expansion has meant changes for an organization that started out focused solely on New York City, Jayaraman said. “It’s made us even more diverse—we definitely don’t consider ourselves an immigrant organization anymore. In New York, 70 percent of restaurant workers are male, but nationally the majority are female.” Jayaraman said the organization receives an email or phone call a week from restaurant workers in locations where there isn’t a chapter.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, restaurant workers from around the country suspended their solidarity for a little friendly competition. After the bussers’ race (Michigan won), back-of-the-house folks duked it out over cupcakes. ROC-Chicago activist Mo Williams, owner of dessert catering company Mo Sweets, baked up eight different batches of cupcakes and plastic bags full of frosting, based on recipes sent in by the teams in advance. Each team of two decorated five cupcakes in five minutes, then presented it to a panel of judges, who considered presentation, taste, and concept.

Chicago took the gold for including locally-brewed stout in the batter, “representing our city’s working class,” according to contestant Riley Henderson. The New York team, which didn’t place, put espresso in the frosting and a stuffed rat atop one cupcake, in homage to the inflatable “union rat” often seen on the city’s sidewalk. Williams had also baked mini versions of all eight entries—enough for most onlookers. After the winners were announced, the smack-talking faded into the quiet of chewing and the camaraderie returned. ROC activists reprised their flash mob song and dance for the judges, then launched into the organization’s slogan (“We are power. We are strong. Who are we? ROC-United!)” in language after language—English, Arabic, French, Kreyol, Spanish, Tamil, Chinese, and more, each activist stepping into the circle to lead the chant in another language, the group making an impressive effort to repeat unfamiliar syllables.

In this one early moment, full of sugar and sunshine, this tiny representation of the nation’s 10.3 million restaurant workers seemed ready to, in the words of a Miami restaurant worker, “reclaim our rights as people.”

Restaurants and Race: Discrimination and Disparity in the Food Service Sector

By Saru Jayaraman, ROC Co-founder for Race, Poverty, and Environment: A Journal for Social and Environmental Justice

Walk into any fine-dining restaurant in an American urban center and you will observe: white workers serving and bartending; workers of color clearing tables, preparing food, and washing dishes.

Like the segregated buses of the Jim Crow South, the restaurant industry has reserved the best jobs in the front for whites, while workers of color are relegated to the back (unless they are bussing tables in the front). Both restaurant workers and employers admit that this stark divide along color lines is commonly accepted industry practice based on notions of skills, table manners, language ability, and appearance. Thanks to a legal framework that demands proof of discriminatory intent, this obvious form of segregation has existed mostly unchallenged until recently.

With over 10 million employees, the restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private sector employer—just behind retail—and the largest part of the nation’s food system. The industry continues to grow rapidly, even as other sectors decline during the current economic crisis, and is considered a gateway of opportunity for immigrants and low-wage workers of color from all over the world. However, research shows that in the country’s largest urban areas, only about 20 percent of all restaurant industry jobs provide living wages and benefits. (There are some instances of waiters and bartenders at fine-dining places in urban centers earning between $50,000 and $150,000 annually.)

With less than .01 percent union density nationwide, the industry mostly provides low- and poverty-wage jobs with little access to benefits. In 2010, the median hourly wage for restaurant workers nationwide was $8.86, which means that over half of all restaurant workers earned less than the poverty wage of $8.90 for a family of three. Also, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the three lowest-paid occupations in America in 2009 were to be found in the restaurant industry.

ROC: A Worker Union Born of Tragedy
In April 2002, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was founded in New York, to provide support to restaurant workers displaced from the World Trade Center by the events of September 11. ROC has since grown to include over 7000 members in eight localities nationwide and engages in workplace justice campaigns, cooperative restaurant development, organizing of responsible employer partners, and participatory research and policy work at the local and federal levels.

From 4,323 surveys of restaurant workers nationwide and over 240 employer interviews, ROC has concluded that workers of color in the restaurant industry are subject to a minimum of $3 wage differential (or “race tax”) from their white counterparts. In every urban area that ROC studied, workers of color were segregated by segment (overrepresented in fast food restaurants and underrepresented in fine-dining) and by position (overrepresented “behind the kitchen door” or relegated to busser and runner positions in the front), which essentially kept them in lower-paying jobs with less access to benefits.

In a study conducted from 2006-09, ROC discovered that of the 200 pairs of job applicants (white and people of color) they sent to fine-dining restaurants, white workers were twice as likely to obtain living-wage positions. Even holding accent constant, people of color were questioned about their qualifications at three times the rate of white workers. ROC also found that a strong European accent (even if incomprehensible) was an advantage to obtaining one of these living-wage positions, whereas a Third World accent was a serious detriment.

Perhaps the most insidious finding of all in ROC’s nationwide study was that segregation is fully expected and accepted in the industry. Interviews with hundreds of employers and workers revealed that both groups found it completely natural that white workers were almost always found in the highest-paid positions. Employers and several white workers agreed that workers of color lacked the skills, “table talk” (the ability to converse easily and relate to a wealthy white clientele), and/or appearance to succeed as fine-dining waiters and bartenders. Interviews with workers of color, however, revealed that many were training less-experienced white workers who then immediately surpassed them into waitstaff and bartending positions that paid up to five times more than what they were earning as bussers.

Restaurant Daniel: ROC’s First Victory
In 2005, several Latino and Bangladeshi runners and bussers from Restaurant Daniel, New York City’s only four-star restaurant, approached ROC with the complaint that they had been repeatedly passed over for promotion to wait staff and bartenders by inexperienced white workers. The difference in salary was literally five times greater—bussers and runners earn between $20-$30,000, whereas waiters and bartenders can earn around $150,000 annually.

Following a large-scale public campaign and litigation in federal court, which  resulted in a two-page cover story in the Dining Section of the New York Times, Restaurant Daniel moved to promote several of the bussers and runners. Most importantly, the restaurant developed a new promotions policy monitored by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which compelled management to inform all workers of new openings and to provide training that would allow workers to advance into these positions. This came as a result of a key finding about the lack of transparency with regard to job openings. Workers of color rarely knew about potential opportunities for training or promotion to jobs for which white workers were hired from the outside.

In essence, the lack of formalized career ladders makes it possible for restaurant employers to use such dubious criteria for hiring and promotion as “table talk” and appearance, which is thinly disguised racial bias. The frequently cited language ability and accent criteria were shown to be patently false in the Restaurant Daniel case, in which many inexperienced new French immigrants were almost immediately placed on the dining floor as waiters.

Color/Gender Segregation: A Nationwide Malaise
When ROC replicated its study in urban areas around the country, it discovered that segregation and discrimination in hiring and promotion was quite commonplace. In Miami, for example, segregation along skin color lines is very obvious—even more than along race or ethnicity. Whites and light-skinned Latinos typically serve and bartend, while darker-skinned Latinos are more likely to be bussing and running food to tables, or preparing food in the kitchen along with African Americans. Haitians, the darkest, poorest, and most vulnerable population in Miami, are almost always the dishwashers—the lowest-paid position in the restaurant. The segregation is further confirmed by wage differentials unearthed by ROC’s nearly 600 surveys of restaurant workers in Miami-Dade County: the reported median wage was $11.29 for whites, $10.00 for Latinos, $9.00 for non-Haitian Blacks, and $8.21 for Haitians.

Also, ROC found the segregation and disparity even greater for women of color who face the double oppression of race and gender discrimination in a very male-dominated sector. In every city surveyed, women of color were more heavily concentrated in fast food restaurants than the overall survey population, and in most cities they suffered a $5 median wage differential (race and gender tax) from the overall survey population.

In several locations, racial segregation by segment and position was further compounded by geographical segregation. For example, in the Detroit metropolitan region, low-wage workers of color must commute long distances with little or no access to public transportation for living-wage jobs in the suburbs where they face tremendous discrimination. One restaurant worker in Detroit claimed that applying for a job at a fine-dining restaurant in Troy, a suburb of Detroit, elicited the query: “You’re not planning on eating here, are you?” She was also told that the restaurant had never hired an African American in its 10-year history.

ROC’s Ongoing Campaign
ROC has taken the following steps to address racial segregation and discrimination in the restaurant industry:

  • Developed policy initiatives that penalize discrimination and incentivize internal promotion, including the posting of new job openings in living-wage positions. In Detroit, ROC helped develop local legislation that would compel the city to consider employment discrimination in granting a local liquor license. In New York, ROC recognized responsible restaurant owners who signed a Code of Conduct and offered internal promotion and transparency in the hiring and promotion process, including posting new job openings in living-wage positions. ROC promoted these employers among conscientious consumers and local elected officials so that they may be granted city-based incentives, such as expedited license processing.
  • Worked with responsible employers over several years to develop formalized career ladders and advanced job training programs for low-wage workers of color to move into living-wage jobs at fine-dining restaurants. The idea is to encourage the industry to consider internal promotion based on skill and achievement rather than on subjective bias. The concept of a worker earning a certificate of promotion from busser to waiter had never before been considered within this informal industry.
  • Continued waging campaigns against segregation and discrimination at high-profile restaurants—as we did with Restaurant Daniel—to inform the industry that there will be consequences for segregation and discrimination based on race, and that the current racially-divided state of the industry is unacceptable. The cover story in the Times Dining Section sparked a vigorous debate within the industry and elicited a tremendous outpouring of gratitude from workers.
  • Implemented ongoing research to document and publicize—through traditional and newer media—the plight of workers of color in the food service sector and the public health consequences of having low-wage workers without access to healthcare or paid sick leave preparing and serving food. (In one restaurant worker survey, more than two-thirds of the 4,323 respondents reported cooking and serving food while sick.).

Moving Forward: The Two-Pronged Approach
Even if racial bias were to vanish entirely from the restaurant industry, it would be impossible for most workers of color to earn a living wage, primarily because only about 20 percent of all available jobs pay that much. So the fight for equal opportunity has to happen in tandem with the fight for a living wage. And until we confront these social and economic disparities, all Americans will continue to suffer the moral, economic, and public health consequences of a segregated food service industry.


National Day of Action Gets Major Media Coverage

The National Day of Action was covered by over a dozen national and local media sources. Below is a listing of the most relevant ones.


Time –

Labor Notes –

Daily Kos –

Miami Herald –


CareerDiva –

LA Times –

Washington Post –

Kansas City Star –

LA Times –

Florida Trend –

Colorlines Magazine –

NBC Washington –


We Love DC —

Alternet -


Village Voice –

In These Times

Science Blogs -

The Glutster Blog —

Epoch —

The Eater —


Katie Couric cites ROC’s Serving While Sick in her stand for Paid Sick Days

Katie Couric asks for paid sick days on the CBS nightly news. Citing ROC’s Serving While Sick report, Couric noted that 2/3 of restaurant workers have prepared or served food while ill. Her comments were part of the “Katie Couric’s Notebook” segment of the show. Business owners and policy makers should take a page from Couric’s notebook and ensure paid sick days are accessible to all workers.  If you haven’t done so already, please consider contacting your members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the Healthy Families Act.