Jane Fonda Didn’t Start Questioning Her Pay Until She Was 78

An Evening With Jane Fonda
Photo: John Wolfsohn/Getty Images

“I’m not very good at advocating for myself. I’m better at advocating for other people," actress and political activist Jane Fonda said earlier this week at the coming out party for L.A.’s new female-driven co-working space, The Riveter. “I grew up with privilege, and if you’re white and privileged it sets you apart from the people that you are standing with at the margins, because you don’t share the same challenges.” I’d asked her about standing up for herself and seeking equal pay in Hollywood, and her refreshing candor reminded me why she’s long been such a beloved ally.

“When I hit about 78, I started paying attention to what I was making, and I will be perfectly honest — before then, I figured I must be worth whatever they were offering me. It never occurred to me that my male co-star shouldn’t get more than I did.”

The lesson here? Too many of us aren’t being compensated appropriately — and it needs to change. Now. Advocacy was certainly the theme at The Riveter’s first gathering in its new West L.A. digs, where founder and CEO Amy Nelson and InStyle were joined by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) president and Badass Woman Saru Jayaraman to lead a discussion about the importance of increasing the baseline pay for restaurant workers across the U.S., thereby establishing dignity and respect for those who live on tipped wages.

An Evening With Jane Fonda
John Wolfsohn/Getty Images

“Every year the Department of Labor, as long as we have [had] a functioning Department of Labor, has put out a list of the ten lowest-paying jobs, and every year, the seven lowest of the ten are in one industry: the restaurant industry,” Jayaraman explained to the room full of west coast women in business, who later in the evening dug into their pockets to raise upwards of $50,000 in support of ROC United. “You might not know being here in West L.A., but half of all working Americans in just a few years will work full time or more than full time — and live in poverty.” According to Jayaraman, the federal mandated minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. Yes, you read that correctly. ("I mean, how do you live on that?" Fonda asked, saying what's on all of our minds.)

The evening truly sealed The Riveter’s intention of providing a positive and empowering space created by women, for everyone by highlighting ROC United’s One Fare Wage Campaign, which seeks to get legislation passed in cities and states that will require the restaurant industry to pay all its employees at least the regular minimum wage. “I named [The Riveter] after Rosie the Riveter, because I feel like World War II was really the one time in America when women defined the workforce, and I think we should do it again,” Nelson told InStyle. “This is a moment in time that is not a trend, it is not new; it’s just that our voices are getting louder.”

An Evening With Jane Fonda
John Wolfsohn/Getty Images

Actors Judy Greer, Erika Alexander and Saffron Burrows were also in attendance, to show their support. “I was a waitress at a diner in a mall. I was a waitress at sort of a fancier Italian restaurant. I was a cocktail waitress. I was a bartender. I was a coat check girl. I worked at a coffee shop,” Greer announced to the crowd, explaining why this issue is important to her personally. “I kind of did it all in Michigan and Chicago. And I’m kind of shocked to hear that the paychecks haven’t changed. I can’t believe this was 25 years ago that I was working in this industry, and everything is exactly the same. So, well done, America!”

For Alexander, the daughter of a traveling preacher, her connection to the cause turned out to be surprisingly personal. “My father was a tipped-wage earner, because that’s how the church runs it. You pass a plate and you hope that they put in something for you and then in the end, after the preacher takes his piece for the church and for the building fund and all that, whatever’s left, we’d get in a little envelope,” she shared with InStyle. “At first I didn’t know what I had to bring to this conversation and then I realized that I am that family [that lived on tips].”

Nelson, who has already opened three other Riveter locations in Seattle, thinks the goals of ROC United are synergistic with her women-first co-working community. “I think one of the reasons you see higher instances of sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry is because it is purely based on tips, and when you work in that industry, your shift schedule determines your tips, and your manager controls that. Although the majority of restaurant workers are women, the majority of managers are not women,” she told InStyle. “Women deserve an equal wage and we think a lot about that at The Riveter, in our own work in moving women into the forefront and into a place where we have wage equality.”

In closing, Jane Fonda explained why she's optimistic about this particular fight: "People say, ‘How do you organize restaurant workers?’ They used to say that about farm workers. But Cesar Chavez did it. Saru, to me, is the Cesar Chavez of restaurant workers." And mobilizing, in the case of One Fair Wage, at least, seems even more cut-and-dried to the longtime activist: "It's a way to get people to come to the polls — because they wanna vote themselves a raise."

To learn more about One Fair Wage and ways to get involved, visit onefairwage.com.

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