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Darden Workers Demand Seat at the Table During Uncertain Times for World’s Largest Full Service Restaurant Company


With 15 years in the restaurant industry, including six at Darden’s Olive Garden, Steve Gazzo, started a petition demanding that he and fellow workers have a say in the Darden’s future.

Darden is the parent company to some of today’s most recognizable full-service restaurant chains, including Olive Garden, Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse and up until last month ago, Red Lobster. It is considered the largest full service restaurant chain in the world, with more than 1,500 restaurants and 150,000 employees.

Darden is a notorious opponent of worker friendly legislation, and with lobbying expenditures second only to McDonald’s, they have been incredibly successful. Among the employee-friendly policies on its hit list are increases to the minimum wage especially the shamefully low tipped minimum wage, paid sick days (it most recently killed paid sick days in California and Florida), predictable schedules and full-time hours.

The company is undergoing major changes, largely due to pressure from “activist” hedge funds.

On July 28th, Darden announced it successfully sold Red Lobster to a private equity group. On the same day, the company announced that Clarence Otis, their CEO, would officially step down by the end of this year.

The pressure from activist hedge funds continues, as Starboard Value is angling to replace the entire Darden Board with its own candidates and launch a franchising strategy at Darden.

The activist investor strategy being pushed on Darden leadership follows the same asset-stripping playbook that has sunk other vulnerable restaurant chains.

There’s plenty up in the air for Darden’s future, but as Steve said, “these restaurants are not just assets to be sold off, but are how 130,000 workers feed and care for their families.” It’s clear that a vital voice is missing from the process — the voices of front-line employees. They already have some important questions:

- Why can the company afford a $500 million pay off to investors but insists on paying the minimum wages? (At least 20% of Darden’s workforce makes the federal subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour).

- Why hasn’t Darden’s corporate leadership explained this crisis to workers and asked for their input on the company’s new direction?

- What does the hedge fund fight mean for Darden’s workers and the communities they serve?

If you agree that workers should have a say in Darden’s future, please sign and share this petition.

We made Nation’s Restaurant News’ POWER List!

power listIn Nation’s Restaurant News’ first annual Power List, ROC United’s co-founder & co-director, Saru Jayaraman, is listed as one of the top 50 most influential people in the restaurant industry. The list includes a wide-variety of well-known names — from CEOs to activists — including Michael Pollan (of Food Inc.), Clarence Otis Jr. (CEO of Darden Restaurants Inc, the world’s largest full-service restaurant brand), and executives from Starbucks, McDonalds, and YUM! Brands.

From Nation’s Restaurant News:

Saru Jayaraman would like the public to be just as concerned about the welfare of restaurant employees as it is about animal welfare and sustainable food practices.

Jayaraman is the co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization originally founded to support the Windows on the World restaurant workers displaced after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. ROC now has about 10,000 members in 19 cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Miami.

The organization has assisted employees in filing lawsuits against restaurants over issues of pay, discrimination and working conditions, including lawsuits against high-end celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud in New York. It also has sponsored protests and demonstrations for restaurant employees seeking minimum wage increases, better pay in the quick-service segment and health care coverage.

In addition, ROC helped restaurant workers establish Colors, a cooperative restaurant with units in New York and Detroit that provides free training to help workers develop skills to pursue restaurant careers.

A daughter of immigrants from southern India, Jayaraman is a graduate of Yale Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She grew up in a Mexican-American neighborhood in southeast Los Angeles. Fluent in Spanish, she has long been an advocate for immigrants and the underprivileged.

Her latest book, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” explores the political, economic and moral implications of dining out. In it, Jayaraman examines poor working conditions and discriminatory labor practices by chronicling the lives of restaurant employees in major urban cities.

Read the entire list here.


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Should Restaurants Do Away with Tipping?

Several restaurants across the US have done away with tipping – causing quite a bit of chatter regarding the institution of tipping and the restaurant industry at large. While we are definitely for restaurants that do away with tipping in favor of a stable and livable wage, the restaurant industry is too large to depend on the voluntary elimination of poverty wages and unsustainable labor standards. The tipped minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 per hour since 1991. The vast majority of servers don’t work at high-end restaurants, they work at Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and IHOPs across the country. Tips aren’t just something extra to reward or incentivize good service, that tip is the majority of a server’s wage — making or breaking the difference between being able to afford rent and groceries. In fact, servers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the US workforce, and are three times as likely to live in poverty, which is exactly why we need to legislate a livable wage that doesn’t exclude tipped workers.

Our co-director, Saru Jayaraman, chatted with some correspondents from The Today Show on the prospect of eliminating tips. Watch the entire segment, and her brief clip below:

Interested in more about tipping?

- Check out The New York Times’ “Room For Debate” – To Tip or Not to Tip here

- Meet some of the folks behind the kitchen door, like Nakima, here

“Is Restaurant Tipping the Worst? The former owner of a tip-less restaurant says doing away with gratuities leads to higher wages and better service.” from TakePart

- Our forebearers originally viewed tipping as antithetical to American democratic ideals

Join the movement to raise industry standards – start receiving our campaign updates. 

Realizing The Dream Featured Image

Realizing The Dream: How the Minimum Wage Impacts Racial Equity in the Restaurant Industry and In America

2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One of the demands of that march was for a minimum wage high enough to secure a healthy and vibrant nation of workers who could provide for their families and participate in the nation’s prosperity. Despite this historic effort, income inequality retards many of the gains of the civil rights movement.

The federal minimum wage for all workers has stagnated at $7.25 per hour, and the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers has remained frozen at $2.13 per hour for over two decades. As a result, millions of Americans find themselves struggling in poverty even while working a full-time job. Though many work 40 hours or more each week, their wages are low enough that they must rely on food stamps and other public benefits to sustain themselves and their families. The minimum wage, at its current level, economically excludes and marginalizes millions of people who could instead be generators of growth throughout the economy. This burden falls disproportionately on people of color, since they represent 42% of minimum wage earners yet only make up 32% of the total workforce.

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the United States economy, employing over 10 million workers. The industry is the largest employer of people of color, and the second largest employer of immigrants. Unfortunately, the restaurant industry is the largest low-wage employer, accounting for 39% of all workers earning at or below the minimum wage. Workers of color and immigrants are disproportionately concentrated in the industry’s lowest paying positions. Forty percent of all tipped workers are people of color, and over 23% of all tipped workers are immigrants, a disproportionate number compared to the 16% of immigrants in the total workforce. Overall, 58% of workers with incomes below the poverty line, and over 50% of tipped workers and restaurant workers with incomes below the poverty line are people of color. 

Nearly six million workers would be lifted out of poverty if the minimum wage were raised to $10.10 as has been proposed in Congress, of which 60%, or over three and a half million would be people of color. Over 500,000 of these would be restaurant workers, and nearly 300,000 of these would be workers of color. Nearly 50% of tipped workers lifted out of poverty would be workers of color. Examining all tipped workers and their families, over 400,000 individuals of color would be lifted out of poverty, and 150,000 of these would be children. Among restaurant workers and their families, over 700,000 people of color would be lifted out of poverty, and over 250,000 would be children.

On all counts, an increase to the minimum and tipped minimum wage is a sensible solution. It would raise millions out of poverty, including hundreds of thousands of children and their families; it would especially help African Americans and Latinos (populations that played a pivotal role in the 2012 elections), and lift up communities that have been marginalized and denied the opportunity to escape poverty. Similarly, any effort to block certain groups, such as tipped workers, from receiving the benefits of an increase to the  tipped minimum wage would mean hundreds of thousands of children and their families would continue to suffer a dream denied.

Download the full report here.

This report was released on June 19th, 2013 by ROC United along with the Applied Research Center (ARC), Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), Center for New Community (CNC), Color of Change, The Greenlining Institute, Jobs With Justice (JWJ), National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Praxis Project, and the United Workers Congress released a report studying the impacts of the full and tipped minimum wage on communities of color.