Alia Todd has watched Asheville’s food culture grow into one of the biggest draws to the area. But while that growth meant economic prosperity for some, Todd says it often came at the cost of inequality, low pay and unfair working conditions for the approximately 11,600 restaurant employees in the city. So Todd and fellow worker Jessi Steelman, with support from Just Economics, began to form connections to identify issues and find ways to address them.
“As the city grows, local businesses open multiple locations and tourism expands, we felt that restaurant workers needed to be a part of that,” Todd explains. From that effort was born the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce, formed in May 2014, which seeks to unite employees, business owners and consumers around the concerns of restaurant workers in Asheville and WNC.
“When it comes to organizing, it’s about building relationships,” Todd says. “We want to figure out what’s important to restaurant workers in the area. We would like to ensure that everyone, including businesses, are equal in their practices and adhere to the law.”
ASRW currently claims over 350 members and has produced a video on restaurant worker rights. Much of the group’s energy is focused on clearing up state and federal laws pertaining to workers’ rights within the industry, including confusion surrounding the minimum wage of tipped employees and how wages are distributed among workers.
“There’s a lot of ambiguity around the law,” Todd notes. “We seek to first and foremost clear up those laws. That’s an easy way to get everyone on the same page.”
Todd adds that ASRW’s outreach is not exclusive to employees, and the group hopes to build alliances with businesses that are in compliance with the law. In fact, as ASRW closes in on its one-year anniversary in 2015, the group will shift its focus from building membership to expanding outreach to business owners and diners. “We live in a community that is interested in sustainability — where their food comes from, how it’s treated,” Todd notes. “People should be just as interested in who’s preparing and serving it.
“Traditionally, there has been a great divide between labor and business,” she adds. “We don’t think it has to be that way. Asheville could be a leader in making sure everyone has a seat at the table.”