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Why I’m writing to you alleged bigots

I should be participating in a press event that intends to tie use of the tip credit to slavery. But it wouldn't have me.
Photograph: Shutterstock

reality check

Instead of banging this out right now, I should be listening to how any full-service restaurant that uses the tip credit is blithely paying homage to our historical disgrace, slavery, and the stark racism upon which it was based. If you don’t see how drafting a restaurant payroll and preserving the mindset of the 1860s are connected, you clearly haven’t dealt with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), which ignores such trifles as accuracy and integrity in pursuing the mission of its benefactor, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

ROC is holding a media call as I write this to muster public support for killing the federal tip credit, the wage break extended to employers of servers, bartenders and other workers who are customarily tipped. Those employers are required to directly pay the employees just $2.13 an hour, as opposed to the $7.25 that nontipped workers are guaranteed, if the servers collect at least $5.12 in tips. ROC and the SEIU would like to replace those federal regulations with a requirement that all employees, regardless of whether they’re tipped, be paid $15 an hour. 

It’s not a pipe dream. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to consider a bill today that would raise the federal pay floor to that level. The measure would almost certainly fail to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Trump would undoubtedly veto it if the bill should squeak through. But everything would be set to ramrod the measure into law if the Democratic Party wins control of the Senate and White House in 2020. 

But back to you alleged racists. The point of the ROC call, judging from the invitation, is to identify the tip credit with slavery. It presumably intends to make the case that keeping the credit is a tribute to the worst collective sin in our history. There’s justifiable public outrage over institutions flying the Confederate flag or allowing statues of Southern Civil War generals to remain standing. How will the populace respond if it’s convinced restaurants are adhering to a practice that grew directly out of white people owning black people?

It’s a classic example of how ROC twists the facts to bash the business in accordance with its agenda. It’s right that the tip credit has a connection to slavery—to its demise, actually. After the Civil War, some civic leaders worried there weren’t enough jobs to absorb all of the mustered-out soldiers, emancipated ex-slaves and workers displaced by the ratcheting down of a wartime economy. Sure enough, some job hunters agreed to work just for tips, particularly as service personnel on trains and in the businesses that sprang up to support travelers—i.e., restaurants and hotels.

But it’s a stretch, to say the least, to portray the tip credit as a “legacy of slavery,” as ROC contends in its invitation to participate in the call. It promises to show “the importance of raising the sub-minimum wage and the historic implications for racial and gender justice in the United States.”

I’ll never know: ROC wouldn’t provide me with the information to participate. It didn’t provide a reason, but methinks it has to do with the last ROC call I monitored, or at least heard in part, about five years ago. I bailed from that virtual press conference after a speaker, a waitress, alleged her boss physically violated her because he felt he owned her, a claim ROC tried to attribute to tipping. It reasoned that the woman was dependent on tips for her income, and feared she’d get lousy shifts and stations if she complained about her boss. 

I wrote a blog entry on the experience. Afterward, I heard from industry lobbyists who’d tried to be part of the call but were turned away by ROC. Reports of similar rebuffs would follow.

Looks like it’s my turn now. And that’s just fine with me. When a group starts with a broad brush allegation that several hundred thousand businesspeople are racist and pro-slavery because they take advantage of a wage break, maybe I’d be better off having lunch somewhere and tipping my server generously. 

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