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Fight for $15

Protesters with the grassroots movement Fight for $15 gather in front of a McDonald's restaurant for a rally on February 13, 2017 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

'A Wake-Up Call to Restaurants': New Campaign for $15 Minimum Wage Kicks Off in Michigan

"Michigan persists as one of 43 states with a legacy of slavery—a subminimum wage—and a very low overall wage of just under $10 an hour. Neither is enough for people to live on."

Brett Wilkins

Amid historic and ever-increasing wage inequality and as a record number of U.S. jurisdictions are set to raise their minimum wages in 2022, Michigan food service industry employees, owners, and advocates have launched a campaign in support of a ballot initiative to lift the state's hourly pay floor from under $10 to $15 for all workers, including those who receive tips.

"The restaurant industry has had the lowest-paying jobs for generations, largely due to the money, power, and influence of a trade lobby called the National Restaurant Association."

The Raise the Wage Michigan Ballot Committee kicked off last week with the goal of boosting the state's minimum wage from the current level of $9.65—but just $3.67 for tipped employees—to $15 for all workers.

Speaking at a Tuesday press conference, Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and president of One Fair Wage—an advocacy group that is supporting the initiative—called the fight for $15 "the most popular issue that exists in the state."

"Everybody overwhelmingly agrees, people deserve to be paid a fair living wage when they work," she said.

"The restaurant industry has had the lowest-paying jobs for generations, largely due to the money, power, and influence of a trade lobby called the National Restaurant Association, which we call 'the other NRA,'" Jayaraman added, before explaining how restaurant owners have been using tips as a way to avoid paying their workers since the Reconstruction era. 

"Michigan persists as one of 43 states with a legacy of slavery—a subminimum wage—and a very low overall wage of just under $10 an hour," Jayaraman said. "Neither is enough for people to live on."

As of August, there were 16 states where tipped workers earn the federally mandated $2.13 minimum wage, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). For other workers, the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

"Even before the pandemic, restaurant workers, tipped workers, were overwhelmingly women, mostly women working in very casual restaurants, struggling with three times the poverty rate of other workers and experiencing the highest rates of sexual harassment... because they have to put up with all kinds of inappropriate customer behavior to get tips," said Jayaraman.

Davante Burnley, the executive chef at the Monarch Club in downtown Detroit, said during the press conference that "the restaurant industry is one of the more difficult industries to work in, with long hours, weekends, late nights, holidays, you name it."

"I just don't see why it should be even a question to pay these people, during the pandemic especially," he added. "I think it's extremely important to pay these people a fair and livable wage without them having to rely on tips and have to deal with disgruntled and disrespectful and harassing customers."

The new Michigan campaign comes as a record 81 U.S. states, counties, cities, and towns prepare to increase their minimum wages in 2022.

Some places are setting their sights even higher; in California, where the fight for $20 is already underway, voters could soon get to decide whether to gradually raise the state's minimum wage from $15 (effective January 1) to $18 by 2026, thanks to a proposed ballot initiative spearheaded by investor and anti-poverty campaigner Joe Sanberg.

According to EPI, increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour would mean that 32 million people—or over 20% of the nation's workforce—would get a raise.

If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be over $26 today, according to figures from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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