Restaurant workers crash the “other” NRA’s trade show

CHICAGO – Restaurant workers attending a speech Monday by Arianna Huffington at the National Restaurant Association’s trade show stood up and protested aloud the industry’s wage policies.

Huffington, the editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, gave a keynote speech that underlined the importance of people being able to achieve the American Dream.

As she spoke restaurant workers in the crowd rose to their feet holding signs that read, “$2.13 is not the American Dream,” and began chanting “One Fair Wage.”

One Fair Wage is a recently-launched campaign by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to eliminate what restaurant workers call an unfair two-tiered wage system in place for restaurant workers in favor of one fair minimum wage that would apply to everyone. The organization has 14,000 workers who are members in more than 30 cities.

The federal tipped minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 an hour since 1991. It forces tipped workers, most of whom are women, to live off tips from customers rather than salaries from their employers.

As they stood up to protest, workers were ushered out of the room with some of them put under temporary arrest. Huffington interrupted her own remarks with support for the demonstrators, declaring, “I understand the demonstration. We all need to be cognizant that we are going through a difficult time in this country where inequality has grown, where more people are in poverty.”

Dawn Sweeney, the president of the NRA, who was also on stage, ignored the demonstrators who spent the better part of three days at the industry trade show this week unsuccessfully trying to meet with her.

A day later restaurant workers again failed to meet with her when they staged a sit-inside the McCormick Center itself.

They walked out onto the main floor in the hall and unfurled two huge banners that read, “Dawn Sweeney, NRA President: Come Talk to Restaurant Workers About Our American Dream.”

“You are being disruptive,” said a security representative who ran out to the demonstrators.

“No, not disruptive,” a spokesperson for the demonstrators shot back. “We just want to talk to Dawn Sweeney. The issue is that we can’t live on $2.13 an hour. There are 13 million of us around the country and we have a lot of workers here from Chicago.”

They complied with orders to roll up the banners and go outside, chanting, “You must know, $2.13 has got to go.” The chants , which echoed through the hall, could be heard by hundreds of restaurant owners examining the latest piece of restaurant equipment and product displays being shown at the numerous booths.

“I know waiters and waitresses who make six figures,” one opponent of raising the wage who attended the show said as he passed demonstrating restaurant workers.

One woman who works as a server in a Chicago restaurant said, “I struggle to pay my bills and raise my son in Chicago. The NRA does not admit it but they do everything they can to prevent us from getting a raise, to prevent us from getting health care.  On top of that we deal with tips being stolen and even the low base wages being stolen. And NRA doesn’t even want to hear from us when we have good suggestions to make that would benefit the restaurant business.”

ROC United says the NRA’s main purpose is to make the $700 billion dollar restaurant industry look good, and that it is the NRA which is behind the thus-far successful 20-year effort to keep wages frozen at their 1991 level.

The workers protesting inside were sent outside where they continued to picket and chant, “NRA You Must Know. $2.3 has got to go.”

This week’s demonstrations here at the restaurant industry’s largest trade show  followed the Apr. 15 convergence of hundreds of restaurant workers on the NRA’s lobbying day effort in Washington D.C.

The restaurant workers visited lawmakers calling upon them to stop taking corporate contributions from the big restaurants.

They set up a pop-up cardboard restaurant, blocking four intersections in the city. The actions caused significant delays for the NRA bus caravan full of lobbyists that was headed for the Capitol.

Photo: ROC official Facebook page


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.