There was one particularly memorable image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doing the rounds after her extraordinary victory last week: the candidate working behind the bar in her day job at a restaurant last year. Today, she’s the face of an energetic young movement shaking up politics. A year ago, she was mixing drinks.
That isn’t unusual in itself — 1 in 2 Americans have worked in the restaurant business at some point in their lives, mostly in their youth. But the image was a reminder of the potential of a huge and largely unrecognized population who, if politically engaged, could change the face of American politics, as Ocasio-Cortez has begun to do.
The people cooking our burgers, taking orders, and pouring our drinks are a fast-growing, working-class constituency whose loyalty is still up for grabs. The question is who will be smart enough to reach them first.
Almost 13 million people work in restaurants, and their industry is the fastest-growing sector of the American job market. It’s also one of the lowest paying. While the majority of restaurant workers are adults in their mid-thirties, 40% are under age 24. More than half rely on tips for their pay, and of those, 66% are female and 40% are single mothers. The entire industry is made up disproportionately of people of color.
The restaurant industry, in other words, represents the rising American electorate. Except at the moment, too many don’t vote.
Over the last 15 years, a majority of our members at the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, particularly workers of color, has expressed dissatisfaction and disillusionment with both political parties, all elected officials, and the political system in general. But we have seen a change in this trajectory over the last several years.
In 2013, we launched a campaign to require the restaurant industry to pay tipped workers the full minimum wage. The federal law that allows tipped workers to be paid below minimum wage is literally a legacy of slavery, and allows people to be paid $2.13 an hour. Living almost exclusively off tips leads to economic instability and forces a mostly female workforce to tolerate severe sexual harassment and other inappropriate customer behavior. Getting rid of this terrible law is a no-brainer for any politician looking to make life better for working people.
Seven states have already passed laws that do this, and the momentum is on our side. The wheels are moving in New York, Washington, DC, and Michigan, where the issue has mobilized thousands of restaurant workers, particularly women and workers of color, who were not previously politically engaged. It was on the ballot in Maine in November 2016 and passed handily. Although the National Restaurant Association spent millions to lobby the state legislature to overturn it, One Fair Wage was one of the two most popular ballot measures in the history of the state; more working people voted for it than for either presidential candidate.
This is what the politics of the future looks like: It engages working people, women, and minorities, and it seeks to make their lives better in a material way. Our campaign has awakened a sleeping giant that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign epitomizes: When they see how engaging politically can directly affect them, restaurant workers mobilize one another in a unique way that other communities cannot. Restaurant workers are digitally savvy, incredibly socially networked, used to working in large teams, and often living and socializing together.
In Washington, DC, One Fair Wage won by a double-digit lead on the primary ballot on June 19, with an overwhelming majority of people of color and lower-income voters favoring the initiative. In Michigan, where Trump won by a 11,000-voter margin, we collected almost 400,000 signatures to qualify to be on the November 2018 ballot. This means the state’s 435,000 restaurant workers will be very motivated to vote themselves a raise this November. Who else will they vote for while they’re are it?
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that he would explore advancing One Fair Wage has mobilized restaurant workers to attend hearings on the issue across the state, and to register to vote. New York restaurant workers will be watching that outcome closely, and are likely to engage in the electoral process in greater numbers as a result.
We are building out a powerful force of workers to fight for their own wage and benefit increases. Any elected official, candidate, or party hoping to win or maintain political power in these divisive times should join us in trying to advance the interests of this immense population.
Saru Jayaraman is the cofounder and codirector of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.