Response: January 2016 Issue

Surviving in America

Food service is a growing industry — with some of the lowest wages, preventing even full-time workers from earning a true living.

Surviving in America
Carol Barton, the Rev. C.J. Hawking, Rita Smith, Harriett Olson, Nataki Rhodes, Yvette Richards, Jessie Cunningham, Roberto Jesus Clack.

I was born in 1972 and was raised on the south and north sides of Chicago. I attended Chicago Vocational High School and Nicholas Senn High School and received my GED from South Suburban Community College. I hold Illinois Career Path Hospitality Management certification and Food and Sanitation Management certification.

I was engaged to my son's father for 7 years and became pregnant with my wonderful son, Joseph, at 22. My engagement ended, and I became a single mother in 1998. Concerned with Joseph's education, I temporarily relocated to Evanston, Illinois.

While living in Evanston I worked as a food service worker on a local college campus. The job was full time, with benefits and weekly pay. However, I was making only $8.50 per hour. I found myself struggling to meet the financial demands of being a single mother, and I could hardly attend my son's school events and parent conferences. I wasn't able to provide my son with the comfortable life I wanted to provide him.

Entrepreneurship and community

I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I want to own a laundromat, or maybe a restaurant or food truck, something that could be a service to my community. My grandfather owned the first black-owned shoe repair business on the south side (Lowes Shoe Repair on 71st and Jeffery). My grandmother ran her own business as a tailor. My aunt opened Jack and Jill Ice Cream Parlor (on 89th and Cottage Grove). I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Through them I learned that connecting with people in the community with business is a way to build long-lasting relationships, and both the business and the community benefit.

Because I wanted to start my own business, I earned certificates from several workshops offered by the City of Chicago on entrepreneurship development and small business development. I also attended legal clinics and seminars. Yet working low wage food service jobs has made it very difficult to simply meet the standard costs of living let alone save money.

However, thanks to Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) Chicago, a grassroots restaurant workers' organization, I was made aware of the policies and legal actions that negatively affect food service workers and keep workers in poverty despite working full time. It helped me realize that I wasn't alone, and that barriers are in place that keep many people from achieving the "American Dream" even if they are doing everything right.

The "American Dream"

Before I got into the restaurant industry I worked for five years as a painter at Verson Allsteel Press Company, a machine tools manufacturer in Chicago. I was a member of the United Auto Workers Union and made around $50,000 to $60,000 a year with benefits. I and my son could live the middle class American Dream. In 1997 the union workers voted to go on strike for better wages and health care. Verson was doing very well in the 1990s and could afford to treat its workers better and still be profitable. I helped organize the picket lines, assisted our membership on the strike line and also walked the picket line myself. It was my first time walking the picket line and protesting for anything.

In 2000, the plant closed. After being laid off, I still had to provide for my son. A friend introduced me to the food service and catering business, and I was able to make some money to support my household. I started out as a server working with various catering services. I held a variety of roles within the food service industry. I catered up to 5,000 people, and I was trained on how to serve and prepare food for large amounts of people. It felt like a career with a future. I didn't know at the time the wage restrictions and discrimination I would face.

As I struggled to get ahead I blamed myself — though it felt like I was working nonstop, I figured I must need to do more, work even harder. I withstood constant sexual harassment from customers just to ensure myself a tip. I was unaware of the other forces that were preventing me (and thousands of others) from excelling in the restaurant industry.

In September 2011 a classmate introduced me to ROC-Chicago, part of the nationwide ROC United, which helps restaurant workers with labor issues, presents policy suggestions to legislators, organizes workers in the workplace and assists with wage, health, and legal assistance for gender and race discrimination. It also focuses on supporting responsible employers and working together with employers to transform the industry. ROC United started in 2008 when Saru Jayaraman and Fekkak Mamdouh, co-founders of ROC-NY, organized the country's first national restaurant workers' convening in Chicago in 2007. (Ms. Jayaraman led a workshop at United Methodist Women's Assembly 2014, and her book, Behind the Kitchen Door, was featured on the 2015 Reading Program list.)

At ROC-Chicago I started taking CHOW (Colors, Hospitality and Opportunities for Workers) classes and training development classes for fine dining as well as classes to learn about the various discriminations one faces in the restaurant industry. ROC-Chicago trained me on how to take action. ROC-Chicago and grassroots organizing has made me aware of outside forces that were preventing me from being successful.

Advocacy and action

As a ROC-Chicago member, I plan, organize and conduct membership drives, lobby public officials and speak at public functions. I spoke to a group of United Methodist Women members as part of the 2015 National Seminar in Chicago. I work with various organizations and coalitions within the community to promote workers' rights.

Later I became a board member of ROC United (Chicago), working with the national leadership board. I work as a leadership developer and help identify potential leaders within the ROC-Chicago membership and mentor them. I also conduct training classes at ROC-Chicago and take members to various training events.

I recently helped coordinate one large national action including all 11 chapters of ROC United nationwide. We organized in front of Darden's restaurant chains — which include Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Eddie V's and Yard House restaurants — and for three months we did not stop protesting. The campaign was against wage theft, racial discrimination, gender discrimination and low wages. That event was my first major action that I personally helped organize, reaching out to students, members and politicians. Though change is slow, I feel empowered. Learn more at, an initiative of ROC United.

Another ROC-Chicago initiative I was able to help coordinate was in Springfield to talk to lawmakers about raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers. We were successful! This initiative taken on by ROC United impacted the policies around the country thanks to our organization and determination to improve the conditions of restaurant workers.

ROC-Chicago even helped me get back wages I was owed from an employer. Legal help can be expensive and out of reach — and that's if you're even aware your rights are being violated. ROC-Chicago assisted me with some legal aspects of my complaint and helped me resolve the pay issues I had with that employer. ROC-Chicago also helped me understand that I was owed paid sick days and other benefits that were denied to me and many others. ROC-Chicago has shined a light on many issues that I didn't and many people don't know about. I have been an activist with ROC-Chicago for four years now. United Methodist Women members can help heed their call for economic, racial and gender justice by joining the fight for fair wages. Make sure you nor anyone else is denied a right to a fulfilling life.

Nataki Rhodes is a mother, entrepreneur and organizer with ROC-Chicago in Chicago

Posted or updated: 1/5/2016 11:00:00 PM
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