The Deceptive Campaign to Keep D.C. Service Workers Underpaid


Tomorrow, voters in Washington, D.C. will decide on Initiative 77, which would raise tipped workers’ wages to the regular minimum wage by 2025 and eliminate the “tipped minimum wage,” which is currently $3.33 an hour. Pass or fail, it will mark the end of a long and expensive campaign against the initiative, which has been defined by deceptive framing, phony lobbying groups, and outright lies.

I live in the restaurant-heavy Logan Circle area of D.C., and the neighborhood has been plastered with signs for the anti-77 campaign, which calls itself “Save Our Tips.” That’s “our” tips, as if the campaign isn’t in fact backed by the bosses in the restaurant industry; almost half the campaign’s funding came from the National Restaurant Association and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. Almost every time that I’ve been out to eat in the past couple months, I’ve noticed Save Our Tips signs in restaurants, or badges on waiter’s aprons. One restaurant even slipped a Save Our Tips flyer in with my bill.

At least one DC restaurant is pressuring its workers to oppose 77, telling workers their “tips and method of pay will be impacted.”

In the event that Initiative 77 passes, tips would only be impacted if patrons decide their servers don’t deserve a penny over $15 an hour and decide not to tip for that reason—or, perhaps more likely, if some restaurants choose to institute a mandatory service charge, which they can legally take from servers. This puts a darker spin on what Matchbox is telling its workers: It’s a threat, not a warning. Perhaps if Matchbox’s margins are so dire that they will be forced to steal from their employees, they shouldn’t have donated $5,000 to Save Our Tips.

It’s darkly fitting that a local campaign to keep workers’ wages low in D.C. would resemble the astroturfed federal lobbying campaigns that help a good chunk of this rancid town cover their dining and entertainment expenses. As The Intercept reported, the campaign is being partly managed by a political consulting firm, Lincoln Strategy Group, that did $600,000 worth of work for the Trump campaign, and whose leader, Nathan Sproul, has been accused of involvement in multiple incidents of destroying Democratic voters’ registration forms. That group also helped run a phony organization aimed at undermining the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which called itself Protect America’s Consumers despite having no discernible connection to actual consumers, and ran ads in DC and several red states represented by Democrats in the Senate. Their donors were never disclosed.

Save Our Tips isn’t the only shady player in this game. The Washington City Paper wrote a credulous article describing another anti-77 organization, the Employment Policies Institute, as a “think tank,” without noting that it is a front group operated by longtime industry stooge Rick Berman. (An editors’ note was appended to the piece noting this.) Berman is a notorious lobbyist—and former restaurant industry executive—who specializes in astroturf campaigns on behalf of industry interests, including the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry. He is literally known as Dr. Evil.

Berman’s EPI is not a neutral research institution. It produces talking points against the minimum wage. The anti-77 work is all part of his usual playbook: He has “used a network of tax-exempt nonprofit groups to shield the identities of his business supporters,” and he launders his supporters’ positions through neutral-sounding front groups and phony think tanks. Berman is also running another organization, the Tips Coalition, which has been sending mailers opposing the initiative.

Other coverage of the issue has also been lacking. A revolting editorial in the Washington Post whined about the impact on diners, making clear that all that matters to the comfortable is access to stupid meals made of foam and truffles and shit, saying “[b]enefits to a particular individual or group must be paid for, usually by imposing costs on someone else.” That’s a sickening position for the well-compensated editorial board of a major national paper to take: Sure, you might want to be paid a living wage, but I do not want to be harmed, and by harmed I mean having to pay $3 more for meals I can already easily afford. (It also puts them on the same side as the National Review.)

The anti-77 campaign frequently demonizes the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the organization pushing the initiative. The City Paper article says the ROC “has nonprofit status but is sometimes criticized for acting too much like a labor union,” without explaining why that’s supposed to be bad, and says the “ROC receives funding from a bevy of foundations,” again without explaining how that undermines their mission in any way. That line was echoed in the Post editorial, which described the ROC as “a union- and foundation-backed organization,” as if that in itself is damning. It is funny how that same vague criticism, designed to stoke fears of “special interests” being behind the initiative, appears in two separate publications—almost as if they each got it from somewhere, or someone. Perhaps it’s a response to the fact that the anti-77 campaign is funded by those who profit off workers’ backs. No one at the ROC is going to profit off raising workers’ wages, besides the workers.

BuzzFeed, meanwhile, quoted servers and bartenders who already make much more than the minimum wage, making the argument that the wage raise isn’t necessary. They interviewed a bartender at the expensive and utterly average Hamilton Hotel, Ryan Aston, who makes up to $50 an hour. But most servers in Washington aren’t making a ton in tips serving martinis to Trump administration goons at happy hour. In D.C., the average wage for waitstaff in 2017, including tips, was $11.86, just 36 cents above the minimum wage. (All the anti-77 workers BuzzFeed quoted, in fact, are on the board of the Restaurant Workers Association, a lobbying group opposed to 77 and other proposals like it nationwide.)

The other major argument against Initiative 77 is that it will kill jobs. It is true that restaurants in general operate on razor-thin margins. But this isn’t an economic experiment without precedent: Other states and locales—including the entire state of California, home to multiple cities full of restaurants, some of which I’m told are pretty good—already pay servers the minimum wage, and the evidence doesn’t support the fear-mongering on job losses. To quote the Economic Policy Institute, henceforth known as The Good EPI (emphasis added):

According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, full-service restaurants in equal treatment states saw stronger growth both in terms of number of establishments and number of jobs compared to states with a separate, lower minimum wage for tipped workers (Figure B). Between 2011 and 2014, equal treatment states saw 6.0 percent growth in the number of establishments compared to 4.1 percent growth in states with separate, lower tipped minimum wages. Likewise, employment grew 13.2 percent in equal treatment states compared to 9.1 percent in other states.

The National Restaurant Association itself, while funding a campaign predicting the death of restaurants in Washington if the initiative passes, “projects that, over the next decade, employment in the industry will grow by 10.6 percent in California,” according to the New York Times. Bear in mind, too, that the Initiative 77 proposal would be phased in over seven years. Restaurants would have seven years to adapt to paying their workers the full minimum wage.

D.C. is a progressive city, so it’s smart of the anti-77 campaign to frame it as something that would harm workers. (So far, only the vile Post editorial page was moronic enough to frame it as harming diners.) Using unrepresentative figureheads like the well-paid Hamilton bartender has caused many people I’ve encountered here to say, well, I heard bartenders are against this, so maybe I should vote against it? Shouldn’t I listen to people in the industry?

Don’t let the National Restaurant Industry and Rick Berman trick you into thinking you’re helping workers by lining their bosses’ pockets. Don’t trust their fear-mongering about closing restaurants and lost tips. If you want to help workers, you raise their wages. You certainly don’t listen to what bosses say is best for them.

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