Why a Democratic City Council Is Working With a Republican Congress To Overturn a Minimum Wage Bill

Restaurant workers and bartenders generally opposed the minimum wage ballot initiative, which passed despite their opposition.


Photo by Eric Boehm

Let's get one thing out of the way right up front: bartenders and restaurant workers in Washington, D.C., did not ask the city to raise their wages and eliminate their tips.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Many tipped workers from the restaurant and bar scene in D.C. opposed the minimum wage initiative approved by the city's voters in a low-turnout primary election last month. That ballot question, Initiative 77, was pushed by a national labor organization with designs on unionizing service sector workers.

And while the idea of boosting the minimum wage for tipped workers in the city from the current level of $3.89 per hour to $15 per hour might sound progressive, the reality is that many servers and bartenders take home far more than $15 per hour when tips are included, so the passage of Initiative 77 could actually see their take-home pay cut.

Despite opposition from the very people who were supposed to be helped by the proposal, Initiative 77 passed on June 19.

Those servers and bartenders might win after all. Members of Congress and the District of Columbia City Council are taking steps to thrwart the will of the people and block Initiative 77 from taking effect.

Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) is preparing to file an appropriations bill that would block the implementation of Initiative 77. The bill could be offered as an amendment on the House floor as early as next week.

"Congressman Palmer believes that the tipped wage increase is bad policy, and the Constitution empowers Congress to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia," Elizabeth Hance, Palmer's press secretary, tells Reason. "In instances where D.C. attempts to implement really bad policies like the tipped wage increase, Congress should intervene to correct them."

Palmer, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who serves as chairman of that libertarian-ish grouping within the House GOP.

The congressional effort follows close on the heels of Tuesday's vote in the city council, where a majority of the council's 13 members supported a proposal to overturn Initiative 77.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Council Chairman Paul Mendelson said the wording of the ballot initiative was misleading—this is absolutely true, as I'll explain in a moment—and that he believed the council should take action because "for a measure that is advertised as helping workers, to have so many workers opposed is striking."

Initiative 77 was pushed by the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), which has pushed successfully for similar laws in places like San Francisco and Minneapolis. Though it was founded after 9/11 to help displaced workers from the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant, the group has morphed into a union front, and previously made headlines during the summer of 2013 for staging Occupy Wall Street-style sit-ins at some restaurants in major cities. Since then, it has maintained a notably lower profile, but has continued to push policies like Initiative 77.

Diana Ramirez, co-director of ROC's D.C. chapter, told the Post that the council's repeal effort was "flat-out voter suppression."

It's anything but. Congress and the D.C. City Council are doing what elected officials in a representative democracy are supposed to do: act as a check on the will of the masses. And it should tell you something that a Republican Congress and the city council of a heavily Democratic city like D.C. are on the same side of this issue—the same side that both management and employees were on during the run-up to the election.

If anyone is engaged in chicanery here, it's ROC and the other progressive groups that pushed Initiative 77 in the first place. While the ballot question made it sound like tipped workers earn less than $4 per hour currently, actual D.C. law requires that employers top-up tipped employees pay if they do not earn enough in tips to surpass the $12.50 minimum wage that applies to all non-tipped workers in the city.

In other words, all workers already earn at least $12.50 per hour, but tipped workers have the opportunity to earn more—sometimes significantly more. Servers and bartenders that I interviewed for a previous story about Initiative 77 told me they can make $300 to $400 during an eight-hour shift.

The most frustrating thing about Proposition 77, Julia Calomaris, a server at Bistrot Du Coin on Connecticut Avenue told me, is how often people seem to think voting for Prop 77 is helping restaurant workers.

"People have no idea how much money you can make working in a restaurant," says Calomaris, who has worked in the industry for 17 years. Imposing a $15 minimum wage and eliminating tips is "giving help to people who aren't asking for it," she says.

It's not just servers and bartenders who could lose if Initiative 77 is allowed to become law. The new rules could ripple through the restaurant industry, affecting business decisions ranging from how many support staff to hire to where to locate.

"When the cost of business gets too high, the first people to be laid off are going to be the prep cooks, support staff, bussers," Ryan Aston, who bartends at the Hamilton, an upscale bar just a few blocks from the White House, told Reason last month. "When labor costs become too high, I mean, it's not a charity. You're in business to make money. I love what I do, but I do it because I get paid."

Overturning the will of the people isn't great optics, of course, and elected officials should endeavor to do so only when it is clear that the people have erred. This is probably one of those times.