Baratunde wonders what today’s labor movement looks like and how workers are responding to the unprecedented consolidation of corporate power across all industries from tech to agriculture to retail. He learns how our economy and our democracy are impacted by these extremes. Saru Jayaraman speaks to the Davida and Goliath power dynamics in the restaurant industry, the origins of the $2.13 per hour wage for servers, and the progress of One Fair Wage. Michelle Miller of CoWorker.org reimagines how we can be agents of our economy instead of objects in the economy.
We are grateful to Saru Jayaraman and Michelle Miller for joining us for this episode.
Follow @sarujayaraman and @michelleimiller on Twitter and their organizations onefairwage.com and coworker.org
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How To Citizen with Baratunde is a production of I iHeart Radio Podcasts. executive produced by Miles Gray, Nick Stumpf, Elizabeth Stewart, and Baratunde Thurston. Produced by Joelle Smith, edited by Justin Smith. Powered by you.
Baratunde Thurston 0:05
Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde, a show where we reimagine the word citizen as a verb, reclaim it from those who weaponized it, and remind ourselves how to wield our collective power. This is a new episode. I'm Baratunde. Like any healthy democracy, this show is stronger when you participate. And we have a number of ways for you to do that. If you're on the social media, use the hashtag #howtocitizen when you post about the show. And we will lift up as many as we can. If you want to be more direct, you could always reach out to us via comments at howtocitizen.com we still check email around here. And if you're doing the actions that we asked you to at the end of each show, let us know what you did send an email to action at howtocitizen.com, I am loving seeing your reflections, the organizations you're starting. It's really great. Let's keep it up. And speaking of keeping things up, we would be remiss if we didn't ask you to rate and review the show, wherever you're listening to it, I suggest five stars. But that's up to you citizen. A quick word on how we make this show. We do most of them live in Zoom with a visible cameras on chat room fired up audience, which could include you, you have a chance to ask our guests questions, and literally help make the show. You can sign up for these invites, by going to howtocitizen.com and joining my email list. And yes, I love the live audience experience. But you're special. Because you're right here. So don't worry, I'm gonna be back check in with you certainly at the end of the show, where I give you particular ways that you can citizen. Now, allow me to pass the mic to myself, as I set up this episode. We are gathered here today to talk about work, and the people who do it in our society. For the past several decades, we've seen a consolidation of power in our country and in our economy. productivity has gone up by 70%. But wages have remained stagnant for the last 40 years. In the midst of a pandemic we are even more exposed to who has power in the economy. And while we talk in abstract terms about labor and capital underneath of all that is people. And as we know from this show, we are all about that people power. One of the things we learned from Eric Liu in Episode Two was that when we have power, we tend to consolidated more power begets more power it compounds like interest. And we've seen that happen so much with our economy, and who has the power to flex within it. But we also learned something else. From that seminal episode on power with Eric, that it's infinite, that we can generate it by shifting our attention, our focus our labors, in the direction of distributing power more to the people. There is a new labor movement afoot in this country. And while we are drowning in the stories of things that aren't working, there are people working to make work itself work for so many of us. And we are honored to have two of those individuals here representing themselves and their organizations in building a new type of movement for and with workers.
Michelle Miller is the co founder and co executive director of coworker.org, a peer based platform that deploys digital tools and data and strategies to help people improve their work lives. This organization describes itself as a laboratory for workers to experiment with power building strategies, and when meaningful changes in the 21st century economy. Before co founding co worker.org, Michelle spent a decade at the Service Employees International Union, where she used Creative Media and the arts to advance union campaigns. We are joined by Saru Jayaraman, the director of the social movements Center at the University of California Berkeley. And because one jobs not enough for this hard worker, the president of one fair wage, which is fighting to end sub minimum wages for tipped and other low wage workers and ensure that everybody who works in America receives at least a full fair minimum wage from their employer prior to one fair wage, so rule co founded restaurant opportunities centers united to improve wages and working conditions for the nation's restaurant workforce. Both Michelle and Saru have been at this for a long time. In some cases, they have degrees in it, they teach it, they've studied it, and they've practiced it. And they share something else in common. They both have a White House Connect. I'm speaking of course, the previous White House, Michelle co moderated a panel with then President Obama on worker voice, Saru was recognized by that same White House as a champion of change back in 2014. So I want to start with a quote actually, from the homepage of CO worker.org, which says the following. At co worker, we believe people should have agency and power in their work lives, most of us will spend a third of our adult lives at work more time than we spend with our families in school or participating in our community, civic life. Yet many of us are silenced and unseen at our jobs. We deserve to have a voice in shaping our working conditions, and the ways in which work happens. We are powerful. And together, we can transform our jobs, and workplaces. Amazing sentiments, very well stated and well said and it sets the stage for why we're here. Even though it's from coworker.org. That represents a lot of the work you've both been doing across your whole careers. You're both on the front lines of new ways of looking at work. And I want to understand from you how even if the types of workers your organizations focus on are different, some of the tactics and struggles you're seeing may actually be the same. Can you tell me about who you're supporting with your work? And what that looks like? Michelle, I'll start with you.
Michelle Miller 6:40
Sure. Thank you so much. I'm very happy to be here with all of you. So co worker is we sometimes describe ourselves as the welcome mat to the labor movement on the internet, we're an open platform for anybody to start a workplace campaign around something they care about that they want to change. And we help them use internet tools to build up a committee of their fellow co workers, no matter where those coworkers are in the country. And so most of the people that we support are people in service sector, low wage jobs, people in the gig economy, we've worked closely with the organization. So roof founded rock, and restaurant work retail and gig and and many other parts of the economy where people are sort of doing that frontline work frontline service work that people that we interact with every day, as we are going about our business. So just quickly during COVID-19. One example is we supported campaigns by grocery store workers at almost every national and regional chain. And they were the people who were able to recognize very quickly the potential health impacts of having to work during the pandemic and the necessity of having grocery store employees on the front lines. And so they want hazard pay and made hazard pay, like just an understood demand that they were able to win at the company level. And then sort of in the media level, where when people were talking about what workers deserve in this moment, they were always including this idea of hazard pay. And that has been for those workers, just the act of coming together and winning hazard pay at places like Trader Joe's and, and Whole Foods and other places, engage them and an experience of their own collective power that has kept them together over time to ensure that those companies hang on to the protections that they want. So that's a little bit about who we're working with and how we're working on these campaigns.
Baratunde Thurston 8:35
I love the way you put that engage them in the experience of their own collective power. You landed at the right podcast right now, Michelle. Saru, I have a similar question to you, you know, who is one fair wage supporting with its work? What does that work look like?
Saru Jayaraman 8:52
Right after September 11 2001, I co founded the restaurant Opportunity Center together with workers restaurant workers who had lost their jobs and their co workers lives at windows on the world, which was the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center tower one. And since that time, 19 years ago, been fighting to raise wages and working conditions in the restaurant industry. And now more broadly in the service sector, all tipped workers. So there are about 13 point 6 million restaurant workers in America are there were right before the pandemic. Another couple million other tipped workers nail salon carwash wheelchair attendants, hair salon workers, these are all tipped workers. And then gig workers who receive tips are also under our umbrella and what we've been collectively fighting for. As you know, at this point, we're close to 15 or 16 million workers in America, collectively fighting to end the sub minimum wage for tipped workers, which is still $2 and 13 cents an hour in the United States of America. And I'll tell you more about the history of why it's $2 and 13 cents an hour. It's a literal legacy of slavery, and a little bit but just to say who these workers are. They are 70% women, they're disproportionately women of color. They are adults, they're not teenagers. The median age is 35. And they are literally the lowest paid workers in America. Every year, the US Department of Labor has put out a list of the 10 lowest paying jobs. And every year seven of the 10, lowest paying jobs in America are all in one sector, the restaurant and service sector. So you know, it's the people who put food on our tables, who, frankly even before the pandemic couldn't put food on their own families tables. With the pandemic, it became an issue of life and death, because 60% of these workers couldn't get unemployment insurance, about 10 million of these 50 million workers lost their jobs, and 60% of them couldn't get unemployment insurance, not because they weren't documented, there was a whole other issue for immigrants. But for documented workers, they couldn't get unemployment insurance because they were living off tips. And their states told them you earn too little, it doesn't look like you earned anything or you earn too little for us to award you benefits. And so these workers were Gaslight, they were told because we pay you too little, you're not going to get benefits that by the way you pay taxes to get. And now these same workers are being asked to go back to work and and force social distancing and mask rules with the very same customers from whom they're supposed to get tips to make up that $2 wage and bring it to the full minimum wage. So you know, who are these workers, they're the workers that, frankly, are going to either stop, or perpetuate a super spreader event this fall, when indoor dining really becomes a thing and a lot of the East Coast. And the CDC has reported eating at a restaurant makes you twice as likely to get the virus, which means both the workers and everybody you know who eats in these restaurants is going to be at incredible risk. So we're relying on these workers who are protecting us, and we're paying them $2 at the same time, that's who these workers are.
Baratunde Thurston 12:04
Thank you for that overview. And I think bringing it to the tension, the sort of contradictory the paradoxical demands that we've put on a certain set of workers to ingratiate themselves to customers, while also disciplining them and becoming some sort of rule enforcer. Yeah. And a public health official. Right? That doesn't quite add up. It just sounds unreasonable. There is a word that we are getting more familiar with in this show and encouraging people to embrace as well. And that is power. And, you know, where does it reside? And who has it? And in the age old question of employers and employees, there is a power dynamic. And we've seen some shifts in that certainly at the highest levels in the US over the past several decades, a decline in union membership, as one example, or the distribution of wages and earnings as another. But I'm curious, what are you both seeing? And what's different now than it was 40 to 50 years ago,
Saru Jayaraman 13:04
I can start if you don't mind, this red love to bring in the history because why are we so focused on the fact that six or 7 million people earn a $2 wage, we're focused on it because it's the greatest power that the industry has over its workers, which is the power not to pay them at all, and have customers essentially pay them. For them, it's the power to say I will benefit from the value of your labor without actually paying for it. It's the power to basically have one group of working people, which is customers pay for another group of working people's wages. And what's amazing in this moment is that literally thousands of workers are now rising up and saying, I've had enough of this. And it's 150 years overdue. Because tipping originated in feudal Europe, it was something that aristocrats and Nobles gave to serve some vassals, but always on top of a wage when it came to the United States. It was actually right around the time of emancipation 1850s 1860s. And the restaurant lobby demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, mostly Black women at the time and not pay them anything and have them live entirely on tips. They wanted the ability to basically continue slavery, to have Black workers that they didn't have to pay because they didn't value their labor, much less so because there were Black women. And so that idea that a Black woman could be paid zero dollars an hour frankly, a Black person could be paid zero dollars an hour, and have to live off of tips became law in 1938. As part of the New Deal, when everybody got the right to the minimum wage for the first time in the United States, except for three groups of Black workers, farm workers, domestic workers, and tipped restaurant workers who were told you get a zero dollar wage, as long as tips bring you to the full minimum wage. We went from zero in 1938 to $2 and 13 cents an hour a $2 increase over one 150 years. And I think I mean, we all know it wouldn't be $2 if it were men or if it were white men, but it's women and it's women of color. And they largely work at eye hops and Denny's and red lobsters. And they're struggling to make ends meet, because for 150 years because of the incredible power of a trade lobby called the National Restaurant Association, we call it the other NRA, it represents the change the I hops, the Applebee's the Olive Garden. And here's the thing like, you know, maybe this absurd legacy of slavery would have gone away if it hadn't been for exactly what you said the concentration of power among these chains, who formed this formidable trade lobby, and have been named the 10th most powerful lobbying group in Congress and in every state, the state Restaurant Association, is the number one voice on the minimum wage on paid sick leave on paid family leave on any worker issue. At the federal level, the NRA, the other NRA, as we call it, is the number one voice on employment issues in Congress. And so until now, it's been what we call davita versus Goliath. It's not David versus Goliath. It's the veto or than Yella versus Goliath, because these are women and women of color up against the most powerful trade lobby in the United States. And it's been a really, really tough fight. We've actually won a full minimum wage with tips on top three times in Michigan, Maine, and DC. And in every instance, this incredibly powerful trade lobby, lobbied and bribed Democrats, let's be real, to overturn the will of the people in each of those places. And so it's been a tough fight, you know, five steps forward, two steps back because we're up against this huge lobby. And finally, we've reached this pandemic moment where we have literally thousands of workers who are saying, That's it, I'm done enough is enough, because, you know, you're asking me to go back to work for two and $3 put my life at risk and my family's life at risk for two or $3. When tips are down, 75% you're asking me to enforce these rules with these crazy customers who I don't know if y'all have seen the news clips, but they're assaulting servers right now. They are assaulting servers are trying to enforce these rules. And so workers have been going on strike we organized the first strike August 31. I don't know if it's possible, Virginia for me to share an image I'd love to share an image from the strengths. Is that possible?
Baratunde Thurston 17:27
So yeah, this is a podcast and you cannot see what's the roof put up on her screen. So let me try to paint the picture with words. She shared a photograph. This setting is Time Square, there's a large crowd gathered to protest they're all wearing face masks, their photographs, their signs that say things like paid sick days. dominating the photo is a towering 24 foot cutout of a Black woman with long braids, and a face mask that says fight don't starve. She's wearing an apron and looking directly at the camera lens as she makes a fist with her right hand and a gesture. very reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter. This isn't Rosie, though. This is Elena, the essential worker. We erected
Saru Jayaraman 18:18
her in Times Square and also in Socolow square in Chicago. There are five of her she'll be appearing also in Philly and DC and Boston, workers are going on strike all over the country to say enough is enough, we will not go back to work without a full fare minimum wage with tips on top and talking about power. What I think is one of the most extraordinary things about this moment is that I've seen hundreds of restaurant owners who actually opposed us on this issue fought us on this issue, who suddenly come to us and said, Enough is enough. We think you're right. The time has come to get rid of this legacy of slavery and to move on. And so workers are rising up and employers are responding.
Baratunde Thurston 19:10
Michelle, I'd love you to talk about power dynamics in the industry. And I know you work in so many. But one of the ones that feels so different to me, from the world of tipped workers or grocery workers that we've heard about so far, is the world of tech workers. And if I could kind of suggest getting your analysis on what the workplace power dynamics look like there, because so many of us on the outside say, these workers are highly compensated they get everything they want. They have foosball or what have you. What does that dynamic really look like? And what may some of us not understand about power in the tech workplace?
Michelle Miller 19:44
So power really is central to this question. I think tech provides a really good illustration of how money doesn't always even equal power. So shortly after the 2016 election, there were many tech workers who started getting together and And, you know, deciding that they were not going to participate in creating lists for deportation that they were going to choose not to build surveillance software that they were going to not participate in the further incursion of human rights via technology. And as they were having these conversations, one of the things they really realized was like, Oh, we've already kind of built all of this, like we've been doing this for many years. And these very well compensated workers, who in many of their companies had various forums where they could speak up and talk about things that were bothering them had a sense that when they started talking about the sort of fundamental moneymakers inside of these companies inside of places like Google, which is like the collection of data on every single user that touches even comes near a Google product or at Facebook, the enabling of disinformation campaigns and ad buys and Twitter, just being Twitter that it was going to take something more than speaking up once or twice at a meeting. And so they came to us. And they asked us, their first question was, is it legal and okay for us to use labor organizing around our ethics questions with our companies, which was such an interesting way to approach this, because for most low wage workers, like the rules and the law have literally never worked in their favor. And so there isn't that that question doesn't come up as much as for tech workers, even for folks who maybe came from more marginalized communities like the rules have generally worked out. And so the first thing they had to do was really think about like, interrogate the idea that labor law and labor organizing is not necessarily governed by a set of fair rules at the outset. And you might just have to take a risk anyway, to build the power that you need in order to make changes. And so we started working specifically with a group of employees at Google, who were concerned about a series of issues inside the company, both around internal harassment campaigns directed at people of color, and queer people and trans people who worked at the company, that essentially what would happen would be that they would raise issues around their ethics concerns about products that the company was building on internal message boards, and then more like conservative or racist people inside the company would go after them and attack them. And they couldn't get the company to take their complaints about what was happening seriously. They kept asking someone to discipline the people who were going after them, and they couldn't get the company to respond. And so what they started having to do with something that they had never done before, which is organize themselves into a collective, you know, we talked to them a lot about how like, if you are all individually fighting this, you're never actually going to make the progress that you need, you have to do it all together, and then telling the story of what was happening to them publicly. And so, you know, for these employees, the fights that they were having with these companies were not fights about whether or not they were getting enough pay, or whether or not they were getting decent benefits, but really like, what does our labor produce? And what is the environment in which we are actually producing those things? So do I want to use my labor, which I bring into this company to produce surveillance drones that are flying over the Middle East and able to identify people based on one pixel of information, which is what the project Maven campaign at Google was run by Googlers. And many of the Googlers, who were involved in demanding that Google stop a partnership with the Department of Defense to build those surveillance drones were themselves from Muslim families, who knew that the people in their own families would be targeted in their own countries buy these surveillance drones? And you know, at Facebook, there were questions about like, Are we going to continue to turn a blind eye to the ways in which our platform is enabling genocide in Myanmar, or election finagling in Brazil? But again, like this question of like, what does my labor do? And what is the result of what it performs? And what is my relationship to that? And can I organize around those things? And can I tell a company as a collective body that you are not going to use our labor, you're not going to use our engineering skills to do harm to people that we share the world with or that we share the country with. Another great example of that was when the information about detention centers being run by ice was made public in the summer of 2018. How many tech workers quickly recognized that Salesforce was providing software that wayfarer was providing beds, that all of these companies were deeply embedded in these practices, and actually enabling those practices to take place. And again, people collectively coming together and saying, like, you don't get to use my labor for this. And so what we've seen is this sort of ongoing interrogation of the ways in which the companies that people have been working for for many years, who previously had promised them that the work they were doing was all about the betterment of the world that like technology, remember, like 2015, that, like technology was going to connect us all and make everything easier and better. And that the root of the lie in that promise when you are built into the United States of America has Imperial goals, and further and corrosion on human rights? Like how do you contest with the fact that you are involved in that project? And how do you use your labor to stop those things?
Baratunde Thurston 25:44
What I'm hearing from both of you in different ways, is an attempt to rebalance power, whether that power has been used to take advantage of someone in a literal financial and physical sense, or in a more moral and ethical sense that we need to shift that balance of power between workers and certainly their very large employers who have consolidated and have some outsized amount of power and making the rules. What do you all think happens? outside of the workplace, this feels like it's bigger than just the workplace? Are there ripple effects? Are there consequences for the larger society, in not doing that, in that rebalancing that power and that sort of taking on and giving workers more of a voice to use some of your language?
Saru Jayaraman 26:31
Listen, the pandemic revealed so much that was so wrong for so long, you know, the dysfunction of the system, not just for workers, but for employers and consumers, and, frankly, for our democracy. So I'm going to go in that order. The dysfunction didn't work for employers, you know, our industry has the highest rates of turnover of any industry. In United States, it's 300%. That's three turns in one position. In one year, we actually calculated the cost, and it's in the millions for any of these chains. They spend millions of dollars each year on rehiring and retraining and employee morale being low because they pay so little. So it hurts employers themselves. Even it hurts shareholders, it hurts people in these companies who are not actually achieving their best potential as companies, because they're not paid. It hurts consumers because we end up bearing the brunt of the public health disaster that occurs when tipped workers cannot enforce these rules, because they have to rely on tips. But it also hurts consumers because consumers are footing the bill for multibillion dollar corporations by paying their workers wages in tips. You know, we as consumers and taxpayers, we subsidize multibillion dollar corporations like Darden, which is all of gardens parent company, and I hop and Denny's, we subsidize them through our tips paying their workers wages to their tips, but we also subsidize them to the tune of 16 point 5 billion with a B dollars annually in taxpayer funded public assistance. This is, you know, workers having to use Medicare or Medicaid workers, you know, using various forms of emergency room care, I mean, just all kinds of public assistance. But I think the biggest thing to think about when workers don't have power, and they end up with a $2 wage, which is to me the epitome of not having power. The biggest challenge is to our economy and our democracy. Because what happens when the largest and fastest growing industry in America is the absolute lowest pain, it means that we're going from a country of one in three working Americans working and living in poverty, to a country of one in two Americans, half of all working Americans working full time and living in poverty. It means that our consumption power as a country is non existent. I think we're feeling that right now, when millions of people are out of work, unable to cover meals for their children, or, or utilities or pay the rent, what happens to our ability to consume as a country? And then Worst of all, for those of you that have ever scratched your heads about why we don't vote as a country? Why is it that Americans have such a low voter turnout rate? I will tell you why. It's because the largest and fastest growing industries in America are people who work two and three jobs and largely cannot, you know, afford to think, let alone engage in political activity. And frankly, also feel disillusioned and disengaged because they're earning $2 an hour. And they've seen both Democrats and Republicans sell them down the river for the National Restaurant Association and leave them at $2 an hour even as other workers go up to 15. They've been left behind two and three and five. I know if it were me, I wouldn't vote because I would say what The point both parties have left me at two and $3. That's the result of a lack of power among low wage workers, a lack of voice, a lack of ability to change their circumstances. Those are the moments in which fascist rise when workers don't have voice or power, they feel helpless, they feel hopeless, they feel disengaged. And what I'm trying to say is that definitely is changing. There's hope on the horizon, we've seen work these same workers now rising up and saying enough is enough, not just with regard to their wages, but also with regard to voting. They're feeling some hope, with regard to voting. But the real consequence of us having allowed these workers for so long, to not have power and to not get paid, and to not feel their voice, or their power, or even their humanity, at $2 an hour is the loss of our democracy.
Baratunde Thurston 30:55
Michelle, do you have anything you want to add to this idea of the effects beyond the workplace?
Michelle Miller 31:01
I mean, as Sarah was talking, I was really thinking a lot about the deeper layers of the loss of being able to vote. And the fact that someone is working two to three jobs, and probably taking care of someone in their family that doesn't have adequate access to medical care, and probably is also responsible for children and their family who don't have access to decent child care and is, are really bearing the brunt of a number of structural and institutional failures in this country, also then do not have the time, or the mental space to contribute to the policies that will change those things, and to actually be active members of our communities. And the ways in which that tears at a community like that means that the commons only gets to be populated by people who have enough money and time to show up in the commons, because everybody else is at work. And when you can't show up, the things that you know about the ways in which the economy does function could function, the ways in which we can care for each other, the ways in which we distribute food and goods and logistics are all lost. It is like an aggregate loss to us in terms of actually being able to adequately govern our society and make good decisions about the ways in which we want to allocate resources to run a good economy. It is not just a matter of the fact that it's not fair and not right, that folks are working all the time and forced to live in poverty and suffering, although, of course, those things are true. But there is a deeper loss around the contributions that people can actually make to our culture in our society, and the ideas that drive our government. When you think about the fact that most of the policy that is developed, most of the stories that are told about our economy are told by people who mostly operate in very similar circumstances to one another economically and came from the same schools and live in the same places, you really can start to grok. Like, why we have not been able to meet people and why people feel like there's nothing worth voting for, because the institutions don't even know how to talk to when engage the people because they haven't included them in their governance.
Baratunde Thurston 33:23
We call the show how to citizen, we're trying to make it a verb. We're trying to define together what that means for us as people. But we also live in a society where corporations are people like entities. And there's an idea of corporate citizenship, that sometimes means deeper things than other times. But there is a set of responsibilities. And I'm curious what you all think of the role of a good corporate citizen? How does a company citizen Well, what does it mean for them for the benefit of the society to do that better?
Saru Jayaraman 33:56
We now have 850 restaurant companies who have joined forces with us and are coming with us to governors and, and to City Council's and state legislatures and Congress to say we need livable wages for workers. We need it to be required across the board. We need $15 with tips on top, we need paid sick leave, we need hazard pay. They are saying they need those things as employers, both because they believe that's good for workers and because they believe it's actually better for the bottom line for their business. But I will tell you that's not the chains that's mostly not the chains. These are independent restaurants across the country that although they also are struggling to survive, are saying you know what, we're struggling to survive but we know our workers are struggling 10,000 times more than we are we may lose our businesses, they lose their homes. And so to me, they are model corporate citizens. They are the employers who are saying this is not just about me is the business owner, making double triple digit profits. This is about me as not just a member of my community, but a provider for my community and employer in my community, somebody who not only, you know, shut down my business, but then watched my workers suffer in my community. And that impacts me. The model corporate citizen is the, frankly the Henry Ford of today. I mean, let's be clear, Henry Ford was a Nazi and racist. Let's be clear on who Henry Ford was. But the philosophy that he espoused that I have to make sure that my workers on the assembly line make enough to pay for the cars, frankly, was selfish philosophy was a philosophy of, I want to make sure there are consumers. And we've gone so far afield from, you know, even frankly, basic economics like that, to me is just basic economics. We've gotten so far field in greed and avarice and just extreme profit driven motive that they have cannibalize their own consumer base. In the restaurant industry. For example, before the pandemic we had three segments, fine dining, casual or family style restaurant, those about I hops in the Applebee's that are full service, but casual, and then quick service anything without a waiter. Well, fast food and fine dining were exploding. Because of the hourglass nature of our economy. The wealthy were eating out and low wage workers were eating fast food. But the casual restaurants of America have stagnated, they've not died, but they've stagnated. They aren't growing as fast as the other two segments, because the people who used to eat in casual restaurants were guests who, restaurant workers, that's where restaurant workers would go hang out after their shifts, that's where they take their families, and $2 and 13 cents an hour, they cannot afford to eat even at the Olive Garden anymore. They can't afford to eat at Denny's, they can afford to take their family out for a family meal at a family style restaurant. And that is an example of a corporate cannibal that is destroying their own consumer market. And so what we need is independent will we call them high road businesses, businesses that are taking the high road depart from profitability, that actually believe in investing in their workforce, and then fighting for policy change alongside their workers. That's a true corporate citizen like a like a high road corporate citizen, giving their workers a day off to go vote. That's a true corporate citizen.
Baratunde Thurston 37:43
Michelle, what are your thoughts on what a good corporate citizen is? Or does?
Michelle Miller 37:48
I want to talk a little bit about the structures that make it difficult for companies to act like good corporate citizens, because I think that they do all of the things that Saru described, but many companies are owned by private equity firms, hedge funds, and have been financialized to the point that companies themselves are treated as speculative properties and rent seeking properties. And
Baratunde Thurston 38:14
I'm gonna pop in real quick to help break something down. The Michelle just said, when she described companies that have been financialized, by hedge funds and private equity, she's talking about a process known as financialization. And I could just leave you hanging in and let you look it up yourself, but I believe in you, and I want to help you out. So let me define this term real quick. financialization is when a company shifts away from generating its profits, primarily through selling actual goods and services, and starts to rely instead on financial instruments, debt interests, capital gains, it's a trend in the economy overall, as financial services make up an increasing share of economic activity. Critics will argue that this is a poor way to generate value, it is short term, it prioritizes the gains of investors and insiders over workers and the general public. So it is a less real version of economic growth or in this case of corporate profits. I hope that helped back to our conversation.
Michelle Miller 39:20
A great example is we work with Starbucks baristas for many, many years. We started seeing like as soon as they gave workers across the board wage in 2016. What we started hearing from workers was that labor hours were being sneakily cut at stores all across the country. So like, the CEO couldn't make the decision to give everybody a raise and just like have that be money that went into the pockets of workers. That money had to be made up for by cutting hours that people were able to work and understaffing stores, because they're actually beholden to a bunch of shareholders. And when the pandemic hit, we had baristas who were asking that Starbucks close all of their cafes, because they're they're not providing an essential service and that they want it to be paid. And Starbucks was saying that they didn't have the money. And we discovered that at the same time, there were $40 million in stock buybacks that were taking place. stock buybacks is when people in the company buy back the stock to raise the share price to make it more valuable so that they can add shenanigans. And so when that became public information, it allowed for there to be open questions about why Starbucks wasn't meeting the needs of their employees. And they actually ended up winning the Starbucks, baristas had four to six weeks where they didn't have to go to work in the cafes, and they were able to be paid. I just think it's really important when we're thinking about the policies that we want to implement in order to actually enable companies to be good corporate citizens, really thinking about the way that this financialized model makes it more desirable for people to use companies as speculative properties as making bets and treating the entire economy like a casino than actually providing for goods and services that we need in our economy.
Baratunde Thurston 41:07
shenanigans is just a great definition of stock buybacks, you'd like to start getting to the technical shenanigans. And we all kind of we all kind of feel you. We all kind of fill you on that. Is this our destiny to have this epic battle of labor versus capital? Could we live in a world where companies fight with their workers and not just against them and vice versa? Where we align the incentives in the right way to move everybody forward? What would that world look like? How would we create that economic model?
Saru Jayaraman 41:43
I'm going to speak just very practically about what we can do right now to push for that world. Because we cannot go back to the way things weren't the way things were did not work for the majority of people in the world, not just in America. And if we learned anything from the pandemic, it's that we're interdependent. What happens to a waitress, you know, in a restaurant affects you and me, because last week, the CDC reported that you're twice as likely to get the pandemic if you eat in a restaurant that restaurants are on the top super spreader events in the United States. So what happens to her affects people in that restaurant and it's going to affect everybody you interact with? We are interdependent. So if we're interdependent, let's reimagine our world and put a stake in the ground to fight for that reimagined world. But in an interdependent world. With a pandemic, we created a rule an emergency fund for workers and Relief Program for employers, we raise like $20 million, and 220,000 workers applied for relief. And rather than just handing out $500 cash payments, we actually have engaged 220,000 workers in fighting for one fair wage and striking an unfolding and getting everybody else they know to vote, we started a voter program out of that Relief Fund. This is a population of people, 220,000 workers, we check their voter record, they have less than 20, less than 20% of them ever voted in their lives. And the vast majority are citizens that can vote. On the employer side, we worked with Governor Newsom in California, and then Mayor de Blasio in New York, and now Mayor Duggan in Detroit to create a program called highroad kitchens, that's providing relief, cash grants to restaurants that commit to transitioning to a full livable wage with tips on top. And it's very different, lots of cities are now and the government is looking at just blanket relief for restaurants and blanket relief for different sectors with no conditions, and no requirements for change. And what we're doing is the opposite, which is saying we've got to save independent restaurants, but we've got to only save independent restaurants if they're committed to change.
Baratunde Thurston 43:49
Thank you, Michelle, same to you. What does the world look like? Or how do we get to it that aligns these incentives of what feels like an epic, everlasting pitch battle, so that workers and companies they work with and four are working together more.
Michelle Miller 44:05
So to start with one thing we can do, and then how that enables a really radically different vision. About a quarter of the country is experiencing unemployment right now. We have rates of unemployment that we haven't seen since the Great Depression. And what people are experiencing in that is the absolute structural failure of our unemployment system as it is currently designed. The fact that the system is designed not to be navigable. It's designed to push you into employment based on this presumption that you always have to be working. And if you're not working, there's something wrong with you that you're you're taking from our society. And that because the duty to care has been essentially abandoned in the public sector, and has been kind of left to corporations if you don't have a job. Like there's no way for you to access the things that you need and that the unemployment crisis is lining up with the eviction crisis, like the eviction crisis is out. And unemployment crisis and vice versa, and also lining up with the debt crisis that we have people that are, in many ways experiencing all three of these structural failures all at once. But the opportunity that lies in that is that we can look at all of these systems and really start to talk about how they don't function to make people's lives actually better and more livable, and start interrogating questions about like, why do we expect people to have to be working all of the time? Why is it not reasonable to expect that after you lose a job, you might take a few months to, like, recover and think about what you'd like to do next? Why is there an entire class of people in this country that we think shouldn't even have agency about what job they choose next? Because often, and specifically, people in low income jobs, and mostly people of color, who are working in service sector jobs are basically treated like they should just take whatever the next job that comes along to them is regardless of their own agency and choice about what they might like to be doing. So what if we thought about our experience of work and not working as like, equal parts of the ways in which were engaged in the economy and ways of identifying what we would like to contribute ourselves. And that actually is enabled by like, initially, in a very practical way, radically reimagining how the unemployment system works, like there was a time when you paid into the system, you got 10 months of unemployment, you weren't shoved into whatever job was next. And you were able to actually like make active decisions about what you want to do with your life. It was not perfect, but it was better than what it is. Now, a lot of what we're doing right now is working with unemployed workers, to have them articulate the system failures, and then the things that they would like to see be different in the next phase of understanding employment. And the reason that again, I think that is really connected to this question of like, Where could we get is that I would like it, if the way that we thought about the economy was something that we all hold a piece of in our hands, and we hold that piece, as we go to work for as we pay our rent, or as we are consumers, but that we aren't sort of objects of the economy, we're agents of the economy, and that we can make decisions together at the local level, the municipal level, the state level, about what do we want the economy to do right now? Like, what is this for? If we are in a place where a lot of growth has been tearing apart our parks and trees, and we know that climate change is coming, and we need to do something about the land, we can make a decision that like a growth mindset for the companies around us is probably not going to be good for our long term survival. We can make those decisions right now. There are so few people making those decisions, who only have one interest, which is in growth and in lining their pockets, that that kind of actual negotiation around what we value is not possible. So I feel like this moment around confronting unemployment and eviction. And all of these ways in which the economic setups haven't been working for people for a long time. They're at their peak pressure point gives us a moment to say what do we actually want from what we get when we go to work, or we look for housing or we live in our cities and towns,
Baratunde Thurston 48:13
I'm going to be thinking for a long time about not being an object of the economy, but an agent of the economy that was so well said. And when you make it plural, Asians of the economy, it sounds like a new Marvel superhero series, where we're all the superheroes, because we're making active choices about how we want to contribute and how we want to participate. And it's just a more empowered way to see ourselves, which is the point of this practice and this exercise we're doing together. So thank you for that it really moved me.
We have a few questions lined up. So let's go to Tom, you are up. You know, we do have collective power as consumers. And I'm wondering, as a consumer, how do we use that power to further this movement? You know, how do we make sure we're supporting the right kind of restaurants and companies? And how do we know that it's going to help the situation?
Saru Jayaraman 49:17
And so we've been actually thinking and working on that very question for a really long time. Because in our industry, we observed consumers very visibly have a real impact on restaurants with regard to local and organic and sustainable food. I remember 20 years ago, restaurants in New York saying I'll never be able to afford locally sourced organic food. And then before the pandemic restaurants were jumping over each other to say they provided locally sourced organic food, whether or not they actually did and a lot of that came about because consumers read you know, Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation and Saw movies about the food system and then went to restaurants and said, Is this local? Is this organic? Is this vegetarian? And there's that great portlandia sketch which we always think of as our kind of ideal. I don't know if everybody's watches portlandia. But there's that sketch where the couple goes in and ask the waitress, you know, is this chicken organic? Did it have friends? What was its name? Did one chicken put their arm around the other chicken? I'm calling the chicken. That was it. And just imagine if consumers did the same thing to ask the manager is the server paid? Just imagine if the customer did the same thing to say, how come there are no people of color in the dining floor? There's plenty of people in the color in the kitchen. Just imagine if they said Is everybody here have paid sick leave and hazard pay the kind of impact that could have. So we spent a lot of time looking at the sustainable local organic food movement and saying not only how could we replicate that consumer activity, but also how can we expand the definition of sustainable food to include sustainable wages and working conditions for the people in the food system. And we created a diners guide and app that tells you which restaurants are doing the right thing. Every year, we're giving out awards to restaurants doing the right thing. We even created videos to show consumers how to walk into a restaurant or eat and at the end of the meet your meal, go up to your manager and say I love the food here love the service. But I actually would love to see you get a gold or silver award in this app. I'd love to see you pay livable wages, I'd love to see you do X, Y and Z. We have the app, we can see it on your app store. It's called rst national diners guide. But the pandemic happened and a lot of those restaurants that have got awards in that app are now you know, on the on the break, the biggest impact you can have as consumers is to say to your elected officials. I it's outrageous. I refuse to continue to subsidize multimillion dollar corporations by paying their workers wages with my tips. It's outrageous. I refuse to put my own public health at risk because the state or the city refuses to require paid sick leave, or paid family leave or hazard pay for these workers. So yes, we need you to absolutely effectuate change as consumers. But you as consumers have power not just to effectuate that change with restaurants or businesses, but also with the people who represent you and those businesses, they value employers voices over everybody else. And the way that changes is by them hearing from consumers and workers, as much as they hear from the restaurant association and big business and even small business.
Baratunde Thurston 52:46
Saru, I liked that inspired a thought, which is if we form some kind of national Residents Association, maybe the other other NRA to counter the other NRA lobbying for the people. Michelle, I want to give you a chance to quickly weigh in on what consumers and purchasers could do. And I want to get to at least one more question. We have someone waiting.
Michelle Miller 53:10
Yeah, actually, I just plus one, everything started said to save time, and also tell you that there's a platform called spin dryers that kind of mirrors what we do, but they do it on the consumer side. And where consumers can commit to spend money based on an employer making changes at the company that they're targeting. So I would suggest you check that out and get involved in spin dries spend rise. Yes.
Baratunde Thurston 53:33
All right. Thank you Next. And I think Finally, we're gonna go to Sarah,
Sarah Hughes 53:39
thank you very much for taking my question on air, I appreciate it. So in light of the things we were just talking about, and also the vision that you have, I'm interested in knowing whether there has been discussion of organizing a large scale general strike of as many workers as possible by your organizations or others that you may be aware of, in response to these compounded public health crises of systemic poverty, the pandemic itself environmental devastation writ large, and kind of how we're seeing the hollowing out of many of the system's folks have counted on for support when crises hit if this is going to continue to happen, which ecologists economists and others are saying it likely is the workers. collective power may be the only real response. But I'm curious.
Michelle Miller 54:29
There's been a lot of discussion of that Sarah Nelson from the flight attendants union essentially stopped the government shutdown by threatening a strike by airline employees, which sparked this conversation about general strike. I think that general strike is very challenging to put up pull off, and what people need is practice and building the muscles of really creating situations of collective care in order to be able to sustain the length of time that is required for a general strike. And so what I think we see workers doing right now is actually Preparation for being able to engage in some kind of large scale walkout. I will also say that today we launched the coworker solidarity Fund, which we're piloting in the tech industry of tech workers, where workers are raising funds to support people engaging in worker actions like walkouts, and strikes and other things. So that that's sort of crowdfunded within the company workers who make a little bit more money or people from the general public can contribute to the fund so that when workers on other lower ends of the supply chain, decide to take these actions, they're not bearing the financial burden and brunt of that all by themselves, but that there's something to supplement that. So I feel like we're all kind of getting the little pieces in place to make these kinds of things more possible. And
Saru Jayaraman 55:45
I just want to add that that is why I wanted to show you that 24 foot Atlanta the essential worker statute because we're hoping she's the new Rosie the Riveter, we're working with an essential worker coalition to get all the groups to use her and then to come together, really to put on a general strike. Absolutely. That's absolutely the way we're thinking.
Michelle Miller 56:03
I think that the some of the most inspiring organizing work by independent contractors has been done through like groups like the gig workers, collective and gig workers rising these Uber and Lyft drivers and people who work for instacart, and Postmates. And all of these app based delivery models where the technology makes it really possible to enact incredible amounts of control over all of the actions that the worker takes. But then they sort of have this plausible deniability being like, well, it's flexible, so you're not really an employee, and they've been able to really get away with not providing people with their basic rights.
Saru Jayaraman 56:40
I would just add that there's a super exciting thing happening California, we had about 35,000 workers apply to our relief on both gig workers, independent contractors and restaurant workers. And they are coming together now to form worker owned kind of entity that we hope would be a competitor in this space to the Uber Eats and the door dashes and the lifts. So I think you're right, I think there is an opportunity that sometimes the right goes too far. And they end up creating opportunities for us. And by basically disavowing these workers as their own employees, these workers are therefore free to put their skills together and maybe create a high road alternative to the Uber Eats and the doordash is through worker ownership, that could be a model your right to other sectors of more traditional employees. So we haven't talked about worker ownership at all today. But there is this huge moment of opportunity with the quarter of the country that's unemployed, as Michelle said, to think about people actually creating their own worker owned spaces at scale. And I'll just tell you one last thing, there are two worker owned restaurant and catering companies in the world that exceed 100,000 workers. One is in Italy, and one is in India, the one in Italy started in a severe economic depression in northern Italy, and has become the third largest catering company in all of Europe. And so it is totally possible for workers to band together in moments like this of severe economic depression, and create something entirely new that could revolutionize the way we think about work.
Baratunde Thurston 58:18
Michelle, so Ruth, thank you so much for helping us reimagine workers and power and the balance thereof in our economy and helping us see ourselves as not objects, but agents of the economy. That's the thing that's going to stick with me. I'm going to sleep on a lot of this. But you provided some solid examples, you diagnose the problem. And you pointed a really nice way out many ways out, in fact, so we appreciate your generosity. And thanks for interacting with us, showing us how to citizen
Michelle Miller 58:46
Thank you so much. It was great to be with all of you.
Baratunde Thurston 58:52
Hey, you, it's just us again, in our private Baratunde listener moment. I want to turn it over to you now. It's your turn to citizen we've gotten fired up, we're ready to go michellin, Saru dropped a lot of knowledge on us. And now it's time to practice citizen ng and put it to work ourselves. You can find all of these actions at howtocitizen.com in much more detail that I'm going to lay out right now. As always, there are two categories of things you can do the internal work, and the external work internally. Here's a set of questions I want you to ask yourself, thinking of yourself as a worker. First, the value I create for people in my community, society or environment accurately reflected in how I'm compensated. As a worker do I feel represented and protected by my HR department? If I experienced my employer violating my rights or someone else's? Do I know the rules the process where the law stands on that and a bit more broadly, Since How does the consolidation of power in the hands of a fewer number of corporations? How does that affect me? Can I think of any ways that that shows up in my life? externally? Here are three things you can actually do. When you frequent local restaurant or business, I want you to ask management about how they're treating their workers ask, are they on a minimum wage? And what is that, ask if they get paid sick leave, ask if this business promotes people from within? Are there opportunities for advancement internally, there's an app I want you to put on your phone. It's called ROC national diners guide orosi. It's available for iOS and Android. So we got pretty much everybody covered. And you can think of it like a Yelp. for local restaurants with a focus on labor rights. Check out that app, find restaurants with the good ratings in your area, support them. If a restaurant you love isn't there, add them to the platform, get them registered in this database and ask them about their practices. Again, they'll see your demand, and dela just how they serve you and how they treat their workers in response. Finally, there's always efforts underway that you can join and support and I want to hit you with a couple. There's a fund that's run by one fair wage syros group. It's the one fair wage COVID Relief Fund, find in support that co worker.org also has a solidarity fund that we encourage you to contribute to and share. Finally, we are big in this show in thinking of ourselves, not just as individuals, but as more empowered when we think as a collective. And that's really powerful in our role as consumers. So check out spinned rise.com and support an existing consumer campaign, or start one based on the principles you've heard about in this episode. Again, those links are available at how to citizen.com with a lot more detail around these actions. And if you take any one of them, we want to hear about it. So send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org help us out by putting the word work in the subject line. And if you want to tell the world too, we encourage that as well. So just use the hashtag #howtocitizen. That'll help us find it and lift up your efforts in the process. You can follow Saru Jayaraman on Twitter at @sarujayaraman and @michelleimiller on Twitter as well. That's Michelle, the letter I and then Miller. Onefairwage.com and coworker.org. As always, if you are digging the show, let the platforms know with a positive rating and a review. And if you want to stay in touch and get updates directly from me, I've got something special for you. Text me 202894844 put the word citizen in the text and you'll get alerted to future tapings, you'll get to chat back and forth with me. And you'll have a chance to find out more about the How to citizen universe and about my own world. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of IHeartRadio Podcast executive produced by Myles Gray, Nick Stump, Elizabeth Stewart and Baratunde Thurston. Produced by Joelle Smith, edited by Justin Smith powered by you
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