Behind the Kitchen Door (2013) by Saru Jayaraman
Saru Jayaraman (SJ) is a lawyer. It looks like she never practiced law. It is not clear if she went right into the NGO world. Either way, SJ is an NGO officiando. She previously started Women and Youth Supporting Each Other on Staten Island. But 9-11 got her involved in the world of restaurant workers. She is one of the co-founders of Restaurant Opportunities Center. The book is partially meant to shock an audience which does not know about the world of oppressed restaurant workers. It also seems SJ is always shocked at how bad things are–not sure if that is just meant to get the reader’s attention, part of SJ’s own ignorance, or just genuine shock. Later on she comments that she never worked in a restaurant.
The book is definitely meant to convince a more well off audience–middle class–to the concerns of workers. Lots of the book does work around convincing the reader the limits of organic food, slow food, etc if it is not connected with better working conditions. SJ writes, “Most foodies care about how we define ‘sustainable food’ because they are concerned about their health and the environment. However, ‘sustainable food’ also needs to embody fair and equitable labor practices” 32.
Seems SJ would be very hostile to just works like Abolish Restaurants. She paints restaurant workers who love their job, love serving rich people in NYC, but whose only concern is the low wages and racial or gender oppression. Take those things away and its seems the restaurant worker is pretty happy. Obviously this seems pretty suspicious to me.
The story of Saru Jayaraman is not the story of the graduate without a future. Her story is the graduate with a future, who in classic social democratic, social service ways uses workers. But it is more complicated then that… Saru is not a parasite. We will not find an evil person of the likes of Bloomberg or Kissinger. Saru is a straight up do-gooder. The most dangerous kind. She has a bleeding heart for the oppressed. Saru even believes that the oppressed must have agency, must be leaders in the struggle, etc.
But what kind of agency and towards what political ends? It is the classic social democratic vision. Fight for bread and butter issues with a sprinkling of dignity and respect so it is not too crass for those who are looking for something more meaningful. After all, fighting just for money and healthcare might seem a little to materialistic. A little soul like dignity and pride does not hurt.
Saru writes “When Mamdouh and I started ROC, I made the decision to dedicate my life to improving the wages and working conditions of the people who prepare, cook, and serve our food daily” 13.
What Saru can never see is how serving in restaurants is intricately filled with humiliation for most of the tasks. What she cannot see is that in higher end restaurants, restaurant workers are nothing but slaves to the richest and most powerful in NYC. Or that regardless of who restaurant workers are serving, working in restaurants (and in general) sucks, is not fun, is exploitation, etc. She certainly paints the image of heroic and happy workers dying to work under the conditions of wage-slavery, if only the working conditions and pay were better. What is the organizing effort to abolish the latter? Perhaps if restaurant workers were paid millions of dollars each to serve the bourgeoisie of this city? To expect restaurant workers to be placed in the broader movement of value or capital is of course ridiculous in a work like this.
Maybe this catches the philosophy of the book better then anything else, “I told him that as a customer it was important to me to eat in restaurants where I knew that there were genuine opportunities for everyone to advance, training programs that would encourage people to move up, and a transparent promotions policy. I told him I wanted my daughter group in a world where everyone could have opportunities in the workplace and be able to eat in a restaurants where the staff was diverse at every level. ” 15 This is easy to dismiss, but this might (might not) reflect the world view of some of the workers who SJ meets. It is not clear. SJ portrait of workers dying to serve people is laid on very thick in the book.
In the chapter titled “Real Sustainability, Please,” SJ goes through a long winded story of a Vietnamese immigrant named Diep who starts her own organic restaurant. In the end it sounds like a little organic food sprinkled on top of a benevolent boss. Later on we find out that Diep is working with ROC. This just sounds like business unionism on ROC’s part. At this point, how ROC is different from SEIU which cuts sweet heart deals with employers is a mystery.
How the countless petit bourgeois restaurants in America, which are barely surviving, will live up to ROC’s ethical standards is a miracle. There is a certain analytical dishonesty in ROC’s analysis regarding this question. Another example is here “I’ll tell the story of how Jason and Ben have shattered expectations, going from dishwashers to restaurants owners, and built a business using social justice principles” 71. Now for those interested in social justice, this seems like a great demonstration of how capitalism, business ethics, can merge with worker’s rights. Too bad the story and political spectrum does not end there. I will not rehearse the arguments of Capital. Maybe SJ has read and even agree with Capital. The problem that modern day communism and anarchism runs up to more than anything else, is the argument of “at least its better then nothing”. This is what progressive say and the reality is that it has seeped into the brains of many commies/ anarchists.
I cannot emphasize enough how many times this phrase has been used in place of politics. Is this a politics of defeat? Is this a resignation of a revolutionary analysis? What’s the alternative? Is this the signal of a lack of the multitude fighting for something more? No doubt all of these dynamics shape the meaning behind those words…
In the chapter “Women Waiting on Equality”, SJ describes life imitating television. With all the celebrity kitchen shows, where Chef Ramsey demonstrates his managerial skills by verbally abusing and humiliating workers, ROC experienced an uptick in complaints from workers mirroring the television shows.
This book should be read not because it has anything new to say or any great analysis. Most of the book is powerful stories of individual workers with a gloss of bread, butter, and dignity organizing. The importance of this book is found in a challenge to more revolutionary projects who organize workers. It is too easy to say that ROC does not develop worker leaders. They very well might. What separates the political projects of the revolutionary left from what ROC is doing in terms of content is what is much more important to look at.
Does the revolutionary left in its actual organizing have a fundamental critique of (restaurant) work itself? A critique of capital and the law of value? What do we say regarding the “at least its better then nothing”? What is it about our politic which will differentiate ourselves from ROC?
If the SEIU and who knows what else is funding new ROC’s around the country, what does that say about the political moment, about what revolutionary forces might or might not do etc…
Facts which might come in handy:
Restaurant industry employees 10 million people nationally. 7/11 low paying jobs are found in the restaurant industry.
40% of restaurant workers in NYC are undocumented immigrants 3.
Federal minimum wage of for tipped workers is $2.13 (5), until ROC was part of campaign which helped raise min wage to 4.65$ IN NEW YORK STATE ONLY (15).
“The share of daily caloric intake from food Americans purchased or consumed away from home increased from 18 percent to 32 percent between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s, and away-from-home market now accounts for more than half of total U.S. food expenditures” 16.
IN a survey of 4,000 restaurant workers ROC found a 4$ difference between white workers and workers of color 18.
Median weekly pay for women is $387 and for men it is $423.
ROC survey found a 4.50$ wage gap between women of color and other workers in the industry.
In many restaurants women are relegated to pastry and preparing salads. (No specific statistic available.)
“although women make up 48 percent of all nontipped workers, they make up 66 percent of tipped workers, who, under federal law, must be paid only the lower minimum wage of $2.13.” 140
“Women make up 72 percent of all servers nationwide–the largest group of tipped workers–and have three times the poverty rate of all other workers in the United States, partly because they tend to work in casual rather than fine-dining restaurants” 141.