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'This election season has exposed that millions of people in this country are fed up about corporate money in politics.' (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

Why I’m Ready to Get Arrested with Restaurant Workers

John Cavanagh

 by Inequality.org

This week I'm joining thousands of people from all walks of life – from workers to environmentalists to the just plain angry – descending on Capitol Hill to risk arrest and offer a primal scream for democracy.

Under the banners of Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening, we will be sticking our necks out to demand an end to the destructive influence of big money on our politics and the need to enfranchise all people.

I have signed up to risk getting arrested on April 13. Why that day? I want to show my support for the worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) as they take on one of the prime examples of excessive money in politics: the National Restaurant Association.

The “other NRA,” as ROC likes to call this corporate lobby group, is holding their own Washington mobilization on April 13. They will be flooding Capitol Hill with hundreds of high-powered lobbyists attempting to buy congressional votes for policies that will increase profits for a $787 billion industry while trampling workers.

Here’s just one example of their staggering power: for a quarter of a century, this mouthpiece for the country’s largest restaurant chains has successfully commandeered members of Congress to keep the tipped minimum wage for restaurant servers and other tipped workers at the paltry sum of $2.13 per hour. Yes $2.13.

Even on the rare occasions when Congress voted to increase the federal minimum wage, the NRA has managed to get tipped workers excluded. The NRA has also used their financial muscle to oppose many other worker-friendly reforms, including paid sick leave and affordable health care, as well as a long list of food safety rules.

Overall, tipped workers are twice as likely to be impoverished and half of all bartenders and servers are in need of federal assistance.

ROC’s irrepressible co-director, Saru Jayaraman, has written a riveting new book, Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, which contrasts the “low-road” approaches of many of the top NRA members with the growing number of “high-road” restaurants that are proving decent working conditions can be good for business.

Meanwhile, millions of restaurant workers, especially women and people of color, are still working under poor conditions. A ROC survey concluded that an overwhelming majority of women servers feel pressured to endure sexual harassment from customers, in order to not lose out on tips.

My Institute for Policy Studies colleague Marc Bayard, who runs our Black Worker Initiative, has also pointed out that women and minorities are overly represented in these “tipped wage” professions (i.e. bartending, waitresses), with women representing 72 percent of all tipped workers and minorities representing 38 percent. Overall, tipped workers are twice as likely to be impoverished and half of all bartenders and servers are in need of federal assistance.

Why doesn’t Congress act to protect restaurant workers instead of doing the NRA’s bidding?

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending, calls the NRA “a powerful force in the nation’s capital.” The Association spent $4.2 million lobbying at the federal level in 2015. More importantly, they coordinate and supply talking points for lobbyists employed by their 52,000 corporate members. The NRA also plays a major role in fighting worker and consumer protections at the state level.

In the face of this assault, ROC is also organizing the rest of us to use our power as diners to counter the power of the restaurant lobby. They are also partnering with a “high-road” restaurant owner network called RAISE, which is advocating for better standards in the industry and providing an alternative to the NRA.

This election season has exposed that millions of people in this country are fed up about corporate money in politics. Groups like ROC and the hundreds of others that are leading the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening mobilizations are working to build the power that can counter the NRA and other corporate lobby groups.

Everyone who cares about the state of our democracy should join them.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

John Cavanagh

John Cavanagh is director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, and co-author of The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed (Beacon Press, 2021).

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