By Saru Jayaraman

We’ve heard a lot in the last few days about the allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain, current Republic presidential candidate, during his tenure as President of the National Restaurant Association (NRA). A powerful lobbying group in Congress, the NRA is led by the world’s largest multinational restaurant corporations, and has spent millions over the last several years to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 and prevent any efforts to win paid sick days. While Cain was a rising star within the NRA and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, the lobbying group truck a deal with its friends in Congress to freeze the tipped minimum wage at $2.13 forever, and partnered with insurance lobbying groups to block President Clinton’s health care reform legislation. The NRA was most recently successful in blocking a paid sick days bill in Denver, and is now attempting to pour energy and resources into repealing President Obama’s health care bill, or winning an exemption from it. Regardless of whether or not they are true, these allegations against Cain represent the epitome of the culture of the restaurant industry – one in which the overwhelming power of the employer has resulted in severe gender discrimination and sexual harassment for women.

The majority of restaurant workers nationwide are actually women. However, most managers, chefs, and owners are men. There are six times as many male head chefs as female head chefs in the United States![i]. Regardless of the position, however, women earn less than men. Even though the majority of all restaurant workers earn poverty-level wages, waitresses earn eight cents to every dollar that waiters earn, a difference of almost $70 per week[ii]. Wages are even worse for women of color. In every city in which ROC has conducted an industry analysis, we have found a $4 wage gap between women of color and the rest of the restaurant industry, in large part because these women are found in lower-paying segments of the industry, like fast food[iii]. Most importantly, our most recent research reveals that the lower minimum wage for tipped workers, currently $2.13 due to NRA influence in Congress, significantly exacerbates the gender wage equity gap in the restaurant industry.

On top of earning less, women deal with constant sexual harassment in the industry. About 11% of all workers we surveyed nationwide reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment. That number is an undercount[iv]. Almost every female member of ROC has a story of sexual harassment to tell. They may not call it sexual harassment, or even recognize it as such because it is such commonplace practice in the industry. One server with five years experience told us, “A lot of the owners will fire you if you say anything back to them. Or if you don’t flirt back at their flirting to you. They’ll find an easy way to fire you.”[v]

One of our members in Los Angeles, Donna, told us one of the worst that we’ve heard. Though the owner of the restaurant where she worked was in his 70’s and she was 21, he constantly pressured her to have sex with him, making comments about her breasts and vagina daily, and then demoting her when she refused his advances. So these allegations against Cain don’t surprise us at all; they are only emblematic of a much larger problem in one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing industries.

The NRA struck a deal with its friends in Congress twenty years ago to keep the tipped minimum wage frozen at $2.13. This deal represents the epitome of the undue influence of discriminatory multinational corporations on Congress!

Click here to let your legislator know that $2.13 an hour IS NOT ENOUGH FOR ANYONE!


[i] U.S. Census Bureau, “Median Weekly Earnings of Full-time Wage and Salary Workers by Detailed Occupation and Sex 2010.”

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, “Behind the Kitchen Door: A Multisite Study of the Restaurant Industry.”

[iv] Restaurant Opportunities Center United National Survey Data, 2011.

[v] Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and Southeast Michigan Restaurant Industry Coalition, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” 51.