Re Imagination Nation, We Imagine US

Episode 3: Saru Jayaraman and Kent Wong

Part of
Published on: March 22, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Podcast
  2. Transcription


In this episode, we hear insights from the frontlines of labor reform with two members of SCoRE (Solidarity Council on Racial Equity). First, a close look at restaurant work—essential but undervalued. Author Saru Jayaraman details efforts to bring the dignity of recognition and fair wages to all workers. Then, Kent Wong of the UCLA Labor Center reveals how an empowered generation of documented and undocumented youth are reimagining an entirely new immigration system.

Back to Top


Maria Hinojosa: [00:00:05] Welcome to Re-Imagination Nation. I’m Maria Hinojosa. To be honest with you, right when the pandemic started and the shutdown started, I kinda went pretty dark. That was the opposite place where Saru Jayaraman went. She’s a member of SCORE, in fact, Saru, who is an activist through and through, has always taken these difficult moments and re-imagined the world in a different way, in the middle of crisis. And so, Saru actually helped me to envision creating this podcast idea. Something where we could document how people were re-imagining the world amidst the crisis that we were living in. So today, in our conversation, we’re gonna talk about restaurant workers. They’re an essential part of our labor force made up of a lot of immigrants from all over the world, yet they’re yet to be recognized for what they provide. Saru created the organization One Fair Wage, and she’s working to end sub-minimum wages for all workers in the US starting with those restaurant workers. So today, I’m joined in conversation with Saru Jayaraman, she’s President of One Fair Wage, and also the director of The Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. So, do you remember what you said in that April meeting? The SCORE meeting? 

Saru Jayaraman: [00:01:36] I mean, I’m sure I said something along the lines of we’re seeing so much desire for change, willingness to change, even among people who fought us in the past. You know, my worst nightmare is that we don’t use this moment to totally demand an entirely new everything. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:01:55] Yeah. And then very specifically, you were like, this is the moment when we can talk about restaurant workers and the wages that they’re paid and why they’re paid those wages and make the connections back to people who were enslaved and racism. 

Saru Jayaraman: [00:02:11] Here’s the way I’ve been thinking about it. There was a preexisting condition in America of racism and inequality, and the pandemic both revealed it and exacerbated it, made it very clear to everybody, both like exposed it. But it also exacerbated that crisis and led to the most transformative changes we’ve seen in a long time that are still happening. I mean, there are legislatures this spring that are addressing police reform, criminal justice in ways they never have. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:02:47] So get to the dreamy Sru, which doesn’t take har OK. So if there was something that you could change about society, what do you zero in on? 

Saru Jayaraman: [00:02:57] I mean, it’s where I’ve been zeroed in on for the last decade. There would be livable wages in the restaurant industry, which is not a small thing. It’s the largest and fastest-growing industry with the lowest wages. It’s had a sub-minimum wage currently two dollars and 13 cents an hour for one hundred and fifty years since emancipation. So actually guaranteeing thirteen point six million workers a livable wage with tips on top would be a huge transformative redemption for this country. That is actually not just about those wages, Maria. It’s not actually just about a two- dollar wage. It’s not just about those workers now getting 15. It’s about coming to terms with slavery and ending a legacy of it. And it’s about reckoning with corporate control of our democracy, because why is there a two-dollar wage? It’s because a huge trade lobby that represents a massive multi-billion dollar restaurant corporations has lobbied for one hundred fifty years to be able to not pay its own people. It is a literal legacy of slavery that continues today. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:04:00] Can you paint a picture for how this happens?

Saru Jayaraman: [00:04:03] So important to know that not only is it the nation’s largest private sector employer, it’s the nation’s lowest paid private sector employers. Everybody accepted it as the way things are. Until the pandemic hit, restaurants were shut down across the country. Upwards of nine million restaurant workers lost their jobs and 60 percent could not get unemployment insurance because in most states, they were told their wages were too low to meet the minimum threshold to qualify for benefits. And that was 20 thousand times worse for workers of color, particularly women of color, because they tended to work in the more casual restaurants. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:04:41] So paint a picture for what racial equity would look like in this reimagined world of Saru’s. 

Saru Jayaraman: [00:04:48] I mean, fundamentally, not paying people for their labor is denying them their humanity. And the opposite of that, this beautiful future in which workers are paid a livable wage and tips are not the sole basis of their income. It’s not just about recognizing their humanity. It’s about recognizing their skill and their professionalism. 

Saru Jayaraman: [00:05:29] We want fifteen dollars an hour minimum for everybody in this country, including tipped workers, workers with disabilities, incarcerated workers who currently get a sub-minimum wage based on the exception to the 13th Amendment that allows for slavery in the case of incarceration. Whether they’re a gig worker, everybody’s got to be paid a minimum wage. Pre-pandemic we as Americans, we eat out more than anybody else on Earth and we tend to celebrate the most important moments of our lives weddings, anniversaries, proposals, Birthdays in restaurants. The restaurant in America has become the place where culture and life happens. And so if these are the people producing that experience for us, we have to value them. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:06:14] So Saru, what is something that you’re doing right now, that’s helping you get to that place? That is keeping you sufficiently animated and hopeful and excited about the future that’s happening right now in the beginning of 2021? 

Saru Jayaraman: [00:06:30] We have bills moving in multiple states to eliminate the sub- minimum wage for tipped workers. And we provided a relief program for restaurant owners that required them to pay one fair wage and go through our racial equity program in order to get the cash relief. And so it frustrates me. There’s there’s a lot of talk of relief for the restaurant industry. But if it’s just blanket relief that doesn’t encourage or incentivize or require change, we’re just going to go back to where we were a dysfunctional, inequitable industry. And so what we’re trying to do is model how relief can actually reshape the future. And we are now in talks with Biden. And I’m very excited cause we’re in talks with Biden administration about making it an executive order executive program, providing cash grants to restaurants across the country that commit to transitioning to livable wages, going through our race and gender equity program and providing free meals to the team. There’s a super big opportunity for them to actually make this a reality, which is that’s why I said five to 10 years, because it’s within our grasp. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:07:38] Saru Jayaraman is the president of One Fair Wage and is the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. Let’s talk about immigrant workers. We have all seen how they kept the country afloat during this pandemic, not just in the restaurant industry, but in every other service industry, they’ve been fueling the economy. And it’s one of the ways in which documented and undocumented people make this country richer. UCLA’s Labor Center has been working with undocumented young people for more than a decade, empowering a new generation of youth who have been in this country since they were children and who are eager to contribute and to be treated with the same rights as everyone else. Kent Wong is a professor and director of the UCLA Labor Center, and it’s working directly with youth to reimagine a future with an entirely different immigration system. I’m wondering when you talk about the inspiration for things changing, where did that come from? How did it manifest? 

Kent Wong: [00:09:10] I see tremendous energy. I see a lot of renewed activism and a tremendous determination among so many communities of color, among people who we are deeply engaged with. And so I do see that this is a critical time for the future of our communities and for the future of our society. When I reach out and educate my students at UCLA and when I reach out and educate the broader Asian-American community, I let them know that the reason why Asian-American exists as it does today is because of the black-led civil rights movement. And had it not been for the work of Martin Luther King, for the work of the Freedom Riders, for the work of the people that challenged Jim Crow and segregation and put their lives on the line that we as a community would not exist, and that it was because of the racist immigration laws that were struck down in the 1960s that the Asian-American community grew quantitatively and qualitatively in the last several decades. And so that is a message that we need to continue to reinforce in terms of understanding the deep legacy of white supremacy and racial injustice that has not only targeted the African-American community, but indeed has targeted all communities of color. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:10:39] Can you tell me the story of one of your students, can you paint a picture of some of that transformation that you’ve seen among young people because of the Black Lives Matter movement intersecting with, again, not a rise. It’s always been there, but, you know, the documentation, the horror of anti-Asian hate. 

Kent Wong: [00:10:59] One of my students, Evan Santoso, comes from a family of immigrants from Indonesia. And he was never particularly politically active. He was not involved. He was a science student. And he took my class on race, class and social justice. And it made him think about the conditions of his family and the conditions of his parents. His father was an Amazon worker who contracted covid-19 while on the job and died a few weeks later. And he reached out to me and I was so moved because it was not reaching out in the sense of wanting sympathy or lashing out or in pain or in anguish, which I’m sure he felt. But he said that I want to do something to make sure that other Amazon workers don’t have the same situation that confronted my dad. And so all last summer, he did an internship with the UCLA Labor Center, where he shared his story, where he went on TV. He was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. And here this young student from an Asian immigrant family was taking on the Amazon corporation. And all summer long, he worked with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to do research, to do analysis, to expose the unsafe health and safety conditions within the Amazon warehouses. And he did this for his dad. 

Kent Wong: [00:12:37] I see it in my students every day, I see it in my communities every day, and for the Asian immigrant community that has struggled and fought and survived and come to this country in the face of tremendous obstacles and continues to thrive. That gives me hope for the future, because we really do need to invest in a future that respects the worth and dignity of our young people. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:13:15] So how do we get there to this other reimagined, fabulous place? 

Kent Wong: [00:13:21] I have an image of Lizbeth Mateo, who I met when she was an undocumented student activist at Cal State Northridge. And she led the first civil disobedience action in John McCain’s office, led by undocumented immigrant youth. And five of them were arrested and were threatened with deportation. And they built a national movement and they won. And Lizbeth Mateo doubled down on civil disobedience, and she voluntarily left this country to travel back to her home country of Mexico to be reunited with other undocumented immigrant youth who had been deported to Mexico. And so along with others who had self deported and others who had been deported, nine of them crossed the border and turned themselves in to the US Border Patrol. And they launched a national campaign and got 40 members of Congress to demand their release. And they were released. And so, for the first time in history, a group of undocumented immigrant youth voluntarily left this country, came back across the border and were allowed to return. And the week she was freed was the week that she began law school. And now she is a practicing immigration attorney. So we have extraordinary leaders in this emerging immigrant youth movement. And I am convinced that they are the ones that are going to finally be able to secure a victory for immigration reform and to provide legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are treated as if they live in an apartheid regime. 

Maria Hinojosa: [00:15:05] That was professor and the director of the UCLA Labor Center, Kent Wong. Reimagination Nation was produced by Futuo Unidad Hinojosa and PRX as part of the We Imagine US project executive producers are Diane Sylvester and me. Our senior supervising producer is Gregory Branch. Our podcast producer is Andres Caballero, project editor Khaliff Watkins. Our engineer is Leah Shaw, production manager, William O the fourth production coordinator, Jessica Ellis, assistant project manager Raul Perez, post-production supervising producer is Tanya Vustos. New media manager is Alexander Garcia. Our music was composed by Michael Ramos. Reimagination Nation is Supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a partner with communities where children come first. I’m Maria Hinojosa. Join us for the next episode of Reimagination Nation. You can find us online at We Imagine, PRX, or wherever you get your podcasts on. And well, don’t forget to check out our companion fiction series. Yeah, a dramatic series. It’s called The Long Way Around. Next time on Re-Imagination Nation, The Power of Healing and the Power of Solidarity in a post covid world.

Back to Top