2015 Leadership Award Honoree Saru Jayaraman

Co-Founder and Co-Director, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United; Director, Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Saru Jayaraman, who has a law degree from Yale and a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, had her first opportunity to fight for restaurant workers’ rights. She was asked to represent the displaced workers who had staffed Windows on the World, the restaurant that had sat atop the World Trade Center.

Jayaraman delivered a legal victory for those workers, the first of many for her then newly formed nonprofit, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) of New York.

Fourteen years later, she is the director and co-founder of ROC-United, the national arm of ROC formed in 2008. The organization is now more than 10,000 members strong and is dedicated to improving wages and working conditions for restaurant employees around the country. It has launched successful workplace-justice campaigns and helped pass a number of bills aimed at protecting workers’ rights and resulting in paid sick leave for restaurant employees, among other improvements.

ROC-United is also raising awareness about labor issues within the food movement. “Consumers have had so much impact on so many restaurants,” she says. “If people care about inequality at all, there couldn’t be a more important moment or important industry to be thinking about,” Jayaraman says.

ROC’s current and perhaps most daunting challenge is to unfreeze the federal minimum wage for tipped employees, which has hovered at $2.13 since 1991. Thanks to the efforts of ROC’s One Fair Wage campaign, eight states have enacted wage increases, while Congress introduced a federal bill in April. “It hasn’t passed yet, but there’s so much momentum around it. It’s pretty incredible,” says Jayaraman.

Jayaraman’s accomplishments are complemented by her role as head of the Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, the first academic institution to study the intersection of food and labor, which she launched in 2012. “Saru knows the facts—indeed, she did the research to get the facts—and she uses them forcefully,” says Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and a 2013 Leadership Award honoree. “I’ve seen her speak to students and groups who would not ordinarily care about such issues. By the time she finishes telling real stories about restaurant workers, they are thoroughly convinced.”

The charismatic Jayaraman, who was born to Indian immigrants and raised in a predominantly Chicano neighborhood in eastern Los Angeles, sees food labor as the most meaningful front in the struggle against inequality in America and insists that diners can move the needle. “We’ve seen a real shift in terms of people who care about sustainable food and want to include sustainable wages and labor as part of that conversation.”

—Aarti Virani