Amending the Will of the People: I-77 Versus the “Tipped Wage Workers Amendment”

UPDATED Friday, Sept. 28

Thursday (Sept. 27), a number of public advocacy groups came to D.C. City Hall to stage sit-ins, pray-ins, and public deliberations with members of the City Council over the fate of I-77 in the face of the “Tipped-Wage Workers Amendment” recently tabled by D.C. City Council Chair Phil Mendelson. The “Amendment” is in reality a repeal for tipped-workers, flatly contrary to the 56% majority vote D.C. voters cast little more than 3 months ago.

The business class has certainly found, or purchased, an ally in Phil Mendelson. As Public Citizen recently disclosed, Mendelson has received $31,500 from anti-I-77 interests this election cycle so far, a figure almost ten times that of similar interests last election cycle. But Mendelson is far from alone;  according to the same report, I-77 opponents have donated more than ten times the amount given to Mendelson, $236,013 in all, scattered across vocally anti-77 representatives over the last two election cycles. And Mendelson, of course, wields significant influence on the status of other councilmembers on various sub-committees and working groups.

Council backers of I-77 are well aware of this problem, opening up dialogue toward compromise in the face of intense opposition from lobbyists. Three Councilmembers, Elissa Silverman (At Large), Brianne Nadeau (1), and Mary Cheh (Ward 3) have been particularly active and have recently entered discussions with groups like ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’ advocacy organization) in order to keep pro I-77 policies alive in the face of fierce opposition.

Supporters of I-77 were equally vehement as they entered the Wilson Building.

“How can you talk about statehood, and talk about what congress does [to D.C. residents], and then not only suppress the vote, but nullify it?” asked Reverend Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth Congressional Church of Christ. Standing in Mendelson’s office, activists and fellow clergy shared his sense of indignation, speaking out against the hypocrisy of elected representatives in between chanting songs from the civil and labor rights movement.

“It is a travesty and it is dehumanizing” commented Bishop Dwayne Royster, a Pastor for Faith United Church of Christ, “to say to the majority of people and say ‘your vote doesn’t count.’ ” Such a sentiment, he said, “would sound like it was coming out of the mouth of a Republican."

While some of the exchanges briefly flared up as the activists went from office to office, the atmosphere was nonetheless one of engagement and dialogue.  Color of Change presented comments from workers in D.C. answering the question “What would initiative 77 do for you?” Answers ranged from “More fairness and opportunities in our community” to “I believe this is the bare minimum people need to be paid for their labor. Down with the corporate class and business friendly city council.”

Advocates for a compromise, let alone a rescinding of the amendment, fear that a vote could be held as early as October 2nd

This portion of the article was published Friday, Sept. 21

Gathered outside the Wilson building on a drizzly Monday morning, members of a number of D.C. activist groups gathered to defend the will of D.C. voters. I-77, an initiative passed  June 19th by roughly 56% of voters to raise the minimum wage of tipped-workers to match those of non-tipped employees by 2026, has now come under attack by the D.C. City Council. Despite passing by strong majorities in every D.C. Ward except the comparatively affluent Ward 3, the City Council’s “Tipped Wage Workers Amendment Act of 2018” now stands to wipe out the spirit of I-77 for tens of thousands of tipped-wage workers. It was altogether fitting that it was on Constitution Day, September 17th, that members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), One Fair Wage D.C., D.C. for Democracy, the D.C. Working Families Party, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Metro DC DSA, and many more came to ensure that “We the People” were not ignored.

It was a bustling sight. All told, 253 people volunteered to testify on both sides of the aisle, and the deliberations carried on for over 18 hours (excerpts from the testimony can be found here). Listening to the City Council members, it was striking to hear so many members— many of whom, as one Council member supportive of I-77 aptly pointed out, were endorsed by markedly slimmer margins than I-77 itself— turn against the Initiative. Many members like Jack Evans, Phil Mendelson, Charles Allen, and others predictably recited the usual lines against raising the minimum wage, but unspoken throughout was the fact that the initiative has broad support, while ample precedent in 7 states and numerous metropolitan areas vindicates the advocates of I-77 and One Fair Wage over the narrowly partisan scaremongering of the employers. Throughout many of the speeches, these members mumbled of the ‘bad’ and ‘mistaken’ logic of I-77, despite hundreds of protestors and witnesses thronged around them, defending the public interest, arguing to the contrary.

A number of prominent activists offered testimony to the importance of I-77. Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute told the Washington Socialist that tipped-wage employees are “amongst the worst paid in the country” while dismissing the claim that a raise in the minimum wage for tipped employees would reduce their earnings as “without evidence.” In fact, raising tipped workers’ wages is thus not only prudent, but almost surgical in its ability to help the most impoverished members of the local community, as attested in metropolitan areas like San Francisco and Seattle. After implementing a One Fair Wage policy, these two metropolitan areas have median wages for tipped-workers at 21% and 7% above that of D.C., respectively. By and large, people know this. In his Council testimony, Mat Hansen of the Working Families Party pointed to a survey in which fully 82% of polled residents said they would be “Deeply Concerned” if I-77 was repealed.

Justly so. I-77 is a moderate piece of legislation for tipped-workers, and is recognized as such by everyone but anti-I77 witnesses. It proposes a very gradual increase in the minimum wage for tipped employees, amounting to around $1.50/hour a year, spread out over almost a decade. It also indexes minimum wages to a cost of living index after 2021, helping to protect low-paid workers from the creep of inflation on their wages. I-77 will benefit a demographic that earns less than $0.36 above the D.C. minimum wage, and is disproportionately made up of women, minorities, and breadwinners of their families. As such, it marks the first significant local fight back against decades of wage stagnation for working Americans.

Meanwhile employer lobbying groups continue to masquerade under the guise of defending worker’s rights. Campaigns use slogans like “Save Our Tips,” despite the fact that I-77 does nothing to prevent tips, and research strongly rejects the idea that a single fair wage would reduce tipping rates. As it turns out, the common sense argument that raising the base wage of tipped employees -- which currently stands at an abysmal $3.33 an hour-- to that of their non-tipped counterparts is an effective way to reduce poverty, increase pay, and provide a more secure living for tens of thousands of D.C. residents.

And yet, misinformation abounds. Perhaps the most demonstrably dishonest argument trotted out by employers is that the letter of the law mandates that employers compensate their tipped-employees if their hourly-wage fall below the minimum wage. Needless to say this ‘tip credit’ policy remains largely unenforced. One report conducted by Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute found that fully 80% of employers, surveyed across 19,000 restaurant employers from 2009-2015, shirk this provision, and as a result D.C. tipped-wage employees see poverty rates twice the average, and the city currently has the largest gap in the country between its tipped-minimum wage and its prevailing minimum wage. Indeed, the pressure against I-77 from the business community becomes inexplicable if the law was enforced properly and a common minimum wage prevailed for tipped and non-tipped employees. It is misleading arguments like these, backed by the National Restaurants Association and other employer groups,  that are part and parcel of what Kesh Ladduwahetty, Chair of D.C. for Democracy, aptly calls “the most vicious propaganda campaign I have ever experienced.”

Around the two-hour mark, an illustrative exchange occurred between City Council member Elissa Silverman and a local businessman, Billy Martin. Silverman, who made a point of consistently asking employer witnesses what the lowest wages in their establishments were, asked Martin this very question, to which he responded confidently that they were paid $10/hour, alongside a negligible fraction of the revenues. Silverman then asked if it would be possible to compromise on I-77, and to sit the tipped-minimum wage to $10/hour, rather than $15. Needless to say, Mr. Martin sputtered somewhat, before feigning that such a proposal would be inconceivable, despite his previous testimony that this is the very minimum wage in his establishment. Like many before him, he flitted between arguing that tipped employees already earn well above the legal minimum, making I-77 unnecessary, and arguing that increasing the legal minimum will put him out of business. Such is the consistency of I-77 opponents.

Another, more bizarre exchange took place a few hours after this. Taking his time with a panel of four opponents of I-77, Chair Phil Mendelson took time to openly muse with them about potential intimidation keeping employees from weighing in on I-77. The intimidation relevant to Mr. Mendelson, in a hearing thus far chocked full of employers, was a nationwide conspiracy of ROC, the original backer of I-77, trying to foist higher wages on presumably unwilling workers. To further this impression of a nationwide conspiracy, he soon after called back an organizer for ROC, Sophie Miyoshi, to question her about her Facebook profile and employment history, pointing out that her residency did not say Washington D.C. Despite the fact that Ms. Miyoshi currently resides in D.C., and to the disbelief of a number of attending audience members both in the chamber and in overflow rooms, this back-and-forth continued for several minutes, for no discernable purpose other than to make ROC appear to lack grassroots support. The majority of I-77 supporters still waiting to testify, representing the majority of D.C. public opinion, would have to wait: Mr. Mendelson had important questions like these to ask.

At present, I-77 remains deeply imperiled. The employers have organized effectively to pressure the City Council into repealing I-77, and it remains to be seen whether or not the will of the voters will prevail. The Amendment currently has 7 sponsors out of 13 Council members: Phil Mendelson (D-Chair), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (D- Ward 5), Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Anita Bonds (D-At Large), while a number of committee members remained conspicuously aloof during the hearings, unwilling to commit. Of those on the committee, only Elissa Silverman (D-Ward 1) and Mary Cheh (D, interestingly, from Ward 3) spoke in terms broadly favorable of I-77. Of these two, only Cheh has come out strongly in favor. Throughout the committee hearing, this skew was obvious even in the panel, as employers remained well represented on the early panels, despite forming the minority position on the issue.

Today, protecting I-77 for tipped-workers, and defeating the “Tipped Wage Workers Amendment Act of 2018” is amongst the single biggest tangible efforts DSA can organize behind. Without the amendment, I-77 promises to raise the wages for workers in the single largest industry in D.C. other than the Federal government itself. After the deliberations today, I-77 and its parasitic Amendment face an accelerated timetable. The City Council is going to vote on the Amendment within two weeks, after which I-77 still risks being forcibly repealed by the Congress under the Home Rule Act of 1973, which has long allowed it to meddle in legislation passed at the municipal level. This has already been proposed by two congresspeople, Mark Meadows (R) and Gary Palmer (R).

When asked how best to help those on the ground, organizers encouraged MDC DSA members to look to the One Fair Wage DC webpage for more information, contact their City Council members urging them to protect I-77, and to reach out to offer support in organizing.

Related Entries