Actress and political activist Jane Fonda called on progressive Americans to organize increased opposition to unfair labor policies in the United States during a discussion about sexual assault and harassment in the services industry Monday.
Partnering with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a workers’ advocacy group, Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, which develops policy and strategies to improve American workers’ lives, invited Fonda to address labor activism and the presence of sexual harassment in the service industry.
Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC, joined Fonda to present ways in which members of the Georgetown community can advocate for individuals earning tipped wages. Fonda is an Oscar-winning actress and an active anti-war and political activist. She was particularly outspoken against the Vietnam War.
The problem of sexual assault and harassment is a systemic and institutional problem inherent in capitalism which affects low-wage workers, Fonda said.
“It’s a systemic change we need,” Fonda said. “Let’s do away with capitalism.”
The event also included Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) to discuss the One Fair Wage campaign, which advocates for a higher minimum wage for tipped workers.
Jayaraman said the lower minimum wage for tipped workers forces them to depend heavily on tips, which can expose female employees to higher levels of sexual assault and harassment. Under current wage laws, tipped employees rely on gratuity payments from customers for customer service, therefore, are not paid the same standard wage other employees are.
“When you are a woman, as any woman who has worked here in this industry knows, who lives on $3.33, which is the shameful wage here in our nation’s capital, you must tolerate all kinds of abuse from customers in order to feed your family in tips,” Jayaramand said.
The federal government currently mandates that tipped employees can earn no less than $2.13 per hour and $7.25 per hour including tips, according to Jayaraman.
In Washington, D.C., tipped workers earned a minimum of $2.77 per hour as of January 1, 2017, but the Fair Shot Minimum Wage Amendment Act of 2016 raised that wage in July to $5 an hour, according to the Department of Labor and the D.C. Council website.
The Pew Research Center found that 3.3 million workers earn minimum wage or less. Forty-seven percent of these workers work in the food-preparation and service-related industries.
Fonda said organizing is key to instigating progressive wage reform.
“Everything good that’s ever happened in this country has happened as a result of struggle, of organizing. What do I mean by organizing? Talking to people, listening to people,” Fonda said.
Canvassing is effective in establishing connections between people and mobilizing a movement to demand a change, Fonda said.
“Canvassing is a way for people of all socioeconomic, ethnicities to reach out and talk to people that they normally might not normally talk to, who then become part of a broader movement,” Fonda said.
Jayaraman urged the audience to write to council members in support of and vote for a One Fair Wage measure to require all bar and restaurant workers be paid the same minimum wage rate that will be on the ballot in Washington, D.C., in June 2018.
Norton said the lower minimum wage for tipped workers contributes to an environment more conducive to sexual harassment and assault.
“If your living depends upon how you present yourself to some sneering scoundrel, I’m not sure you have a way to protect yourself,” Norton said.
Jessica Martin, board member of ROC, said she faced abuse during her own time working in a low-wage job.
“The places where I dealt with sexual harassment the most were places where the wages were lower, even though it was one fair wage,” Martin said.
Jayaraman said the prevalence of subminimum wage jobs is an economic problem for America.
“We cannot sustain ourselves if we cannot consume, if we cannot live, if we cannot thrive, if we cannot feed our families,” Jayaraman said.
Fonda said activists should not fear lobbying organizations like the National Restaurant Association, which pushes for the maintenance of subminimum wages, when they organize at the grassroots level.
“I have seen people change in front of my eyes, people of all ages, and when you know that that kind of change is possible and even more so when people get together as an organization to create change, then you have hope,” Fonda said.