After months of corporate lobbying and weeks of procedural votes, eight Washington, D.C., council members voted Tuesday to overturn the will of their voters who overwhelmingly passed the One Fair Wage law, known as Initiative 77, earlier this year.
The nation’s capital had briefly joined a growing number of communities across the country in overturning the tipped-wage exemptions that leaves millions of service-sector workers with sub-minimum wage conditions. So servers and parking-garage attendants and nail salon workers and bellhops in the capital will continue to make just $3.89 an hour.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Council Member Jacks Evans led the fight to override the voter-approved initiative. Mendelson accepted more than $30,000 from businesses and executives opposed to Initiative 77 for his reelection campaign this year, according to an analysis by consumer advocacy leader Public Citizen, which has shown over $230,000 in industry-related contributions to fair wage opponents during the last two election.
The restaurant industry won that one, but take heart, because Washington notwithstanding, the push toward reform may now be inevitable. Drawing on momentum from ascendant movements aimed at tackling inequality, amplifying #MeToo, and elevating the voices of women of color, the One Fair Wage campaign has scored a series of stunning local, state, and federal victories to eliminate corporate loopholes that allow employers to pay millions of workers sub-minimum wages and force employees to depend on the kindness of strangers for most of their earnings.
The image of tipped waiters in the minds of many politicians may be the white-jacketed gentleman who serves them at their favorite steakhouse and walks away with $50 in tips from a single meal. But that is the exception, not the rule. Tipped restaurant workers, 66 percent of whom are women, make around $25,000 a year on average. They are nearly twice as likely to qualify for food stamps as the rest of the U.S. workforce, and three times as likely to live in poverty.
And this is about more than take-home pay. It is about personal security and dignity. When customers know that the livelihood of their server—and her family—depends on tips, it puts the worker in a position of phenomenal vulnerability. Sexual harassment in restaurants stems in large part from a mostly female workforce having to tolerate inappropriate customer, co-worker, and manager behavior because they rely almost entirely on tips rather than a full wage from their employer. It has been heartening to see prominent advocates of the #MeToo movement recognizing and championing the inherent connection with One Fair Wage.
In early 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo advanced a process to establish One Fair Wage in New York. This fall, the Michigan legislature voted to adopt the minimum wage ballot language rather than put this issue on the ballot. Republicans in the state are so afraid that the popularity of One Fair Wage will drive younger voters and people of color to the polls that they have turned to legislating reform themselves, even if only temporarily, rather than allow it to be determined by a surge of voters in November.
If Republicans don’t gut their own legislation later in the lame-duck session, tipped workers in Michigan will see their wages go up from the current $3.52 per hour to $4.80 per hour in March 2019 and to the full minimum wage by January 2024. And back in 2016, voters in Flagstaff, Arizona, raised the sub-minimum tipped wage to the full minimum wage by 2026, which by that time will be $15.50 plus cost of living adjustments. This voter-approved initiative is being challenged this November thanks to funding from dark-money entities like American Encore, America Revived, and Market Freedom Alliance—all actively campaigning against the citizen-led efforts in this small college town in Northern Arizona.
From the Beltway to the heartland, this worker-led movement has forced us to ask, what is the point of a minimum wage law that does not actually guarantee a minimum wage? What is the point of a political party calling itself progressive if it gives corporations a free pass to pay certain workers poverty wages, just because they serve us food, bus our tables or clean bathrooms? What is the point of either if they force millions of people, predominantly women of color, to accept working conditions far more likely to include sexual harassment? The eight D.C. council members who voted to repeal tipped wage increases for thousands of tipped workers may want to ponder these questions.
The restaurant industry has spent millions on powerful lobbyists dedicated to ensuring corporations can pay merely $2.13 an hour wages in some states, which is less than $4,500 per year for full-time, often backbreaking work. The industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy, but also among the lowest paying. The industry’s Dickensian wage structure does not reflect some free-market invisible hand, but rather the power of the National Restaurant Association, a trade lobby that has spent millions to ensure that 43 states protect their right to pay a sub-minimum wage.
The tactics of the corporate lobby took a new turn in 2016, when restaurant owners created an astroturf group called Restaurant Workers of America and a PAC called Save Our Tips. They have poured millions into misleading campaigns, often targeting their own employees with misinformation and thinly-veiled threats. These efforts have backfired by raising public awareness about how many workers suffer from the lobbyist carve out.
Progressives and Democrats would also be wise to draw lessons from the intersectional success of the One Fair Wage story. Some of these lessons include letting the grassroots inform your priorities, particularly the real-life economic and dignity fights impacting women of color who drive Democratic victories but get too few seats at the table afterwards.
Restaurant workers are winning their campaign to create a higher professional standard in the industry, while addressing the serious problems of sexual harassment and racial bias. Some battles are worth fighting, and voters have repeatedly shown that they see the campaign for one fair minimum wage as one of them.
Tom Perriello is a former member of Congress and current president of the New Virginia Way.