Saru Jayaraman has good reason to be pleased. She is the executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, a little nonprofit that just pulled off a David-versus-Goliath feat. The center extracted US$164,000 from two fashionable Manhattan restaurants -- Cite and the Park Avenue Cafe -- to settle lawsuits that involved charges of discrimination and failure to pay overtime to 23 restaurant employees, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Bangladesh.
The center was born out of the ashes of the World Trade Center to help the surviving employees of Windows on the World, and it has grown into a muscular advocacy group for restaurant workers citywide. The other afternoon, Jayaraman, who is also a lawyer and an adjunct college professor, sits underneath what she calls the victory wall in the center's cramped Tribeca office. Displayed on it are oversize checks. There is the fat one symbolizing the US$164,000 from the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, which owns Cite and the Park Avenue Cafe. There is also a US$19,500 check to settle legal charges involving the Three Guys Restaurant, a diner in Manhattan where Mexican workers said they were told they were too fat, dark and ugly to be waiters.
"In our experience and through our research," Jayaraman says, "you wouldn't believe the ads put out by restaurant employers -- `good-looking required, send photos' -- to be a waiter. Employers have told us that means they want good-looking white people in the front and hard workers in the back. Hard workers mean immigrants."
The latest settlement is one of six campaigns waged by the center since it started in April 2002, shaming restaurants through litigation and demonstrations into paying a total of more than US$300,000 in back wages and discrimination payments, in addition to improved working conditions.
Jayaraman often leads the protests outside the restaurants. She is a soprano who used to sing with a gospel choir at Harvard. "It comes in very handy," she says.
The restaurant workers came up with a Christmas-carol protest outside Cite in Midtown. "You better pay up, I'm telling you why, ROC New York is coming to town," she chimes in singsong. One would think Jayaraman would be eager to talk. The center is on a roll. This fall, it plans to open a restaurant, Colors, on Lafayette Street near Astor Place, to be owned and governed by workers. On Tuesday, the center is set to release what it describes as a groundbreaking report on the state of the restaurant industry.
Yet Jayaraman is uncomfortable, squirming, about being the interview subject. She explains she is merely the group's facilitator.
"As an organizer, I don't think that this is appropriate," she says somewhat sternly. "The point is that restaurant workers lead their own struggles for justice. I'm just a spark in the fire."
She is insistent and tough. In her cluttered corner of the room, there are posters of Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi and Angela Davis. Jayaraman, who is single and works 70 to 80 hours a week, lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She will only rent there.
"I don't believe in buying property," she says. "It's not our land. It's the land of the Native Americans. Being a part of the property-owning class is the main problem to begin with."
She does not want to be in the spotlight. But her career trajectory has been rather striking. A daughter of immigrants from southern India, a graduate of Yale Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, she was singled out and honored as one of America's finest young people in 1995 by President Bill Clinton.
Clinton recognized her not only as a top undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles, but also because two years earlier, at 17, she founded Women and Youth Supporting Each Other in Los Angeles, where she was born. The group's goals are to teach women leadership skills and reduce high pregnancy rates. It is now a national organization with 12 chapters in six states.
She says she created the group because she was angry at the way teachers constantly told her and her classmates that they would probably get pregnant and not make it through high school. As it turned out, some classmates fulfilled that prophecy. "I wanted to find a way to provide something with more opportunity, more options and more self-esteem," she says.