Academy Award-winning actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin drew an audience of about 300 students, staff and local residents Friday afternoon to the Power Center. The celebrity activists, accompanied by Saru Jayaraman — co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization that aims to improve restaurant industry standards nationwide — discussed economic inequality and the minimum wage’s effects on women in the restaurant industry.

Prior to the event, the Daily sat down with Fonda and Tomlin to discuss what the two have been highlighting thus far on their statewide tour.

“Ann Arbor made sense as a stop for us for us — it’s a college town, a progressive city and the food industry employs many college-aged women who we hope to advocate for here,” Tomlin said. “We need college students to be a part of this platform, this change. It’s very important.”

Fonda echoed Tomlin’s sentiments regarding Ann Arbor being an appropriate locale to discuss this issue. 

“It’s important for Lily and I to bring our message to a place like Ann Arbor, where we can hope, even at a minimum, to help make contact with people, convince them to talk about this issue with their friends, collect signatures for the ballot, go to town halls and help develop a people’s platform that will help talk about all of the issues facing this country and this state,” Fonda said.

Fonda and Tomlin both otably appeared in “9 to 5” which premiered in 1980.

Lilly Fink Shapiro, the Sustainable Food Systems coordinator at the University, opened the event, and noted there are 60 faculty and staff members working together at the University to explore issues related to food production and distribution, as well as the policies that shape the emergence of different food system models globally.

“The University of Michigan is on the map for our world-class research, curricular and interdisciplinary study of sustainable food systems,” Shapiro said. “We are one of the few Universities in the country to offer both an undergraduate minor, a graduate certificate in sustainable food systems, and we have five tenure-track faculty who are a part of a cluster hire to teach and conduct research in this growing field.”

Tomlin was the first speaker to take the stage: She performed a monologue as Judith Beasley — a character she portrayed in sketches throughout her career on Saturday Night Live. Tomlin explained through her monologue that Beasley represents the millions of waitresses, like herself, “who have worked hard all their lives and yet cat can barely eke out a living.”

Since the first minimum wage law was passed in 1938, Tomlin explained, restaurant workers’ wages had gone from zero dollars per hour to $2.13 per hour at the federal level and $3.38 dollars per hour in Michigan — a raise of $3 over 80 years.

“And no, this is not fake news,” said Tomlin, acting the part of Beasley. “We restaurant workers are facing the greatest level of economic inequality since the Gilded Age and 70 percent of tip workers who earn that measly 3.38 an hour are — drumroll, wait for it — women.”

Tomlin described an overworked waitress — speed-walking with multiple plates up and down her arms, sometimes with carpal tunnel syndrome in her elbows.

Still acting the part of Beasley, Tomlin said, she became the primary breadwinner in her household when her husband became injured; she needed to provide a good home for her children.

“What was I to do?” she said. “Working as a waitress was the only skillset I had. I hope no one snickered at that phrase, ‘skillset,’ because waiting on tables — to do it right — requires one’s personal best. Yes indeed, with low wages, we still have high aspirations.”

Speaking as herself, Tomlin used the term “breastaurant” — referring to restaurants that employ a female waiting staff. She pointed out an irony of women surrounded by food in their jobs, and yet dependent on food stamps to support themselves and their families.

Speaking as herself, Tomlin noted she was born and raised in Detroit; her parents were both blue collar workers – her father, a factory worker, and her mother, a nurse’s aide.

“I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and not have any savings,” she said. “I went into food service very early.”

Tomlin said she got a job as an usher at the Avalon Theater in Detroit; she worked bringing food trays to hospital patients and later she worked at a Howard Johnson’s in New York City.

In her opening remarks, Fonda noted she and Tomlin advocated for female worker’s rights in their 1980 comedy “9 to 5” — a film in which three female workers attempt to get even with their misogynistic boss.

Fonda explained she, Tomlin and Jayaraman are working to get the One Fair Wage measure on the ballot for the midterm election in November 2018; 350,000 signatures are needed for the petition. According to Fonda, such act would raise the minimum wage to $12 in Michigan. It would also phase out the two-tiered wage system in which different groups of workers receive different pays and set the same wage for tip and non-tip workers.  

“It’s seems ridiculous that we’re applauding for $12 minimum wage, doesn’t it?” Fonda said. “I mean it’s got to eventually go much higher than that. What on Earth does the owner (of a restaurant) think when he, or she — but they’re mostly ‘he’s’ —knows that his workers, and they’re mostly women in Michigan — 80 percent of restaurant workers are female and they have three times the poverty level as other workers, and they’re heavily dependent on food stamps and other social services — what does an owner think when he knows that his workers are having to work two jobs, maybe even three, just to make ends meet?”

Fonda said she, Tomlin and Jayaraman are in Michigan because for decades it has been a steadfast Democratic stronghold, it was the birthplace of the American labor movement and it has the largest Black-majority city in the country, among other attributes.

“We’re here because we think Michigan can become a template for the rest of the country,” Fonda said.

According to Fonda, the National Restaurant Association, which represents more than 300,000 restaurants in the United States, is very against the One Fair Wage mission and the ROC; it also favors the two-tiered system because it guarantees big restaurant chains can make a lot of at the expense of waiters.

Fonda explained seven states, including California and Minnesota, have only one-tier systems — where everyone earns the same minimum wage — and people working in restaurants still get tips.

Jayaraman noted the restaurant industry is the largest and fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy, comprising more than 12 million workers.

“Despite the size of this industry, despite its growth, despite the fact that most of us have worked in it, despite the fact that we actually, just last year, made world history becoming the first nation on Earth that is now spending more money on food bought outside of the home, rather than food bought inside the home — despite all of those things, it continues to be the absolute lowest paying wage job in the United States,” Jayaraman said.

With regard to the actual restaurant setting, Jayaraman said she has talked to female lawyers and doctors who have faced sexual discrimination in their current jobs, but never said anything because it was never as bad as that which they experienced in the restaurant industry. Jayaraman said the restaurant industry is setting an extremely low standard for what is acceptable for women.

“In those seven states (that have already enacted the One Fair Wage), not only is there higher job growth, higher restaurant sales per capita, even higher rates of tipping … people still tip at the same rate or higher even when workers get an actual wage,” she said.

At the end of the event, Fonda called for attendees to spread awareness of getting the One Fair Wage measure on the ballot by knocking on doors and canvassing. She said different groups — women’s group, LGBTQ groups and environmental groups, among them — need to come together and fight for their rights.  

Fonda explained she spoke at the University in the past with her then-husband Tom Hayden, who was an alum and former Daily editor-in-chief.

“This is different than the last time I used to speak here … it’s different, because we don’t have time anymore,” she said. “We can’t just say, ‘Well in four years, we’ll get someone new.’ We can’t because of climate, we’re running out of time. We have to do this like our lives depend on it because we do.”

LSA freshman Alexis Marschall is studying women’s studies and sociology. Marschall said she attended the event because she is a fan of Fonda and Tomlin.

“I am also a liberal student, wanting to help out in any way I can, and this seminar was very helpful in motivating others to get into the community and help, so I wanted to come to see how I could help, see what they could say,” Marschall said.

Marschall said she thinks the speakers did a good job shedding light on the issue of wage equality and encouraging attendees to help in any way they can.

“Wage equality is a huge issue that needs to be presented,” she said. “There are a lot of hidden connotations behind the restaurant industry, and what’s really important about this was it doesn’t take a lot to help, but every little hand that is helping collaborates … to make the big change.”

Also in attendance was Ferndale resident Torri Buback, who came with two friends with whom she is working on a web series about wage inequality.

“A few years ago I decided that I was living all wrong, I (thought) there’s got to be something more, what is it?” Buback said. “I realized I was letting society mold me into who it wanted me to be … I decided to figure out where that was affecting me in each, every single area.”

Buback said production for the web series got pushed back, and so in the interlude, she worked as a waitress, where she said she did not realize what she was getting herself into.

“Everything they described, I saw it with my own eyes, but I saw it with, I feel like, renewed eyes because I knew what it was like to be a professional and this was choice that I was making for my soul to grow,” she said. “I decided that I was going to take everything that I could out of that for my personal (life).”

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