Indian American labor activist Saru Jayaraman is being targeted by restaurant industry lobbyists in a smear campaign, according to the New York Times.

Jayaraman, founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, is the author of “Behind the Kitchen Door” (I-W, Dec. 13, 2013), a Cornell University Press book that details how workers in the restaurant business, including both legal and illegal immigrants, contend with racist hiring practices and some of the lowest wages in the country. Her Web site, ROCUnited.org, offers ways workers can organize for higher pay, and it shows how restaurant customers can put pressure on businesses to treat their workers better.

The New York Times reported Jan. 17 that Richard Berman, a prominent restaurant industry lobbyist in Washington, D.C., had launched a site called ROCExposed.com, which claims that Jayaraman’s organization is exploiting legal loopholes by operating as a “worker center” instead of a legally recognized union. Berman also claims in a Facebook post that “the self-proclaimed champion of the ‘living wage’ has short arms and long pockets when it comes to paying its own workers.”

“The Restaurant Opportunities Center is a labor union front group disguised as a restaurant industry employment center and watchdog,” reads the site.

In the past, Berman has founded several organizations such as the The Center for Consumer Freedom, funded largely by tobacco giant Phillip Morris; The American Beverage Institute (which worked to oppose local governments’ attempts to lower existing blood-alcohol arrest thresholds); the Employment Policies Institute (which works against efforts to raise the minimum wage); and the Center for Union Facts (which argues that unions hurt workers).

Jayaraman recently appeared on MSNBC’s show “The Cycle” to discuss her disagreements with Berman and the National Restaurant Association to discredit ROC. Scott Defife, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, a longtime rival of ROC’s, is also quoted in the Times article as saying “They [ROC] have a history of tactics that unions couldn’t get away with.” 

“We are not a union,” responded Jayaraman on “The Cycle,” adding that her group works not only with workers but also with employers seeking to improve work conditions, as well as consumers.

“I think the real issue here is that the National Restaurant Association is very afraid that we’re actually getting the message out there — the message that they don’t want heard. Messages like the minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13 an hour for the last 22 years.”

In an interview with India-West last fall, Jayaraman said that she and her organization had received hate mail and other opposition, but that it doesn’t dissuade her.

“Every time that happens, we’re flattered because it means that change is happening and the status quo is being threatened. Unfortunately, that’s what needs to happen if change is going to happen,” she told India-West.

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