Minimum Wage

The corrupt link between Seattle’s ‘Fight for $15’ and Berkeley researchers

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After Question 4 passed at the ballot box last November, an organization called the Restaurant Workers of Maine was formed. The group, comprised of restaurant owners, servers, bartenders and other food service staff, was created to fight back against the Maine People’s Alliance (MPA) and labor union interests that threatened their livelihoods.

Many Mainers did not know that a vote in favor of raising the minimum wage was also a vote for removing the state’s tip credit, which allows Maine’s full-service restaurants to pay tipped workers half of the state’s minimum wage, understanding that the bulk of their earnings will come from those who tip servers and bartenders for their excellent service. If, with tips, a worker’s earnings do not reach the hourly minimum wage, it is the responsibility of the restaurant to make up the difference. This system gives family-owned restaurants in Maine the flexibility needed to stay profitable and remain in business.

Fortunately, the grassroots-organized Restaurant Workers of Maine group successfully lobbied the legislature, getting Maine’s tip credit reinstated in late June, simultaneously escaping the looming threat of unionization; the MPA’s hidden goal behind Question 4.

In other areas of the country, however, restaurant workers have not had much success. This is especially true in Seattle, where a recent study conducted by the University of Washington revealed that raising the city’s minimum wage has caused employers to limit hiring, reduce hours and let workers go. Minimum wage workers in Seattle saw their earnings shrink by $125 per month after the city’s most recent scheduled minimum wage increase in 2016.

Even more troubling than the effect of this law is the manner in which it was enacted – with disingenuous, discreet collusion between the Seattle city government, a PR firm and academics at the University of California-Berkeley.

A Forbes contributor filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with Seattle city officials, seeking emails and other documents relevant to the city’s local ordinance to increase the minimum wage. What the Forbes writer received in return is truly damning, and proves that the “Fight for $15” minimum wage initiative in Seattle was coordinated by the city, the initiative’s organizing group and a research team at Berkeley.

The emails uncovered with the FOIA request found that the Seattle Mayor’s office told the Berkeley researchers to omit the relevancy of the forthcoming University of Washington report, which used never-before-seen data provided to the Washington researchers by the Seattle city government.

Additionally, the press release for the Berkeley study was written by the same PR firm, and the same executive, used by the Fight for $15 campaign. Further, because the city knew the Washington University report was coming out and would detail the harsh realities of raising the city’s minimum wage, the Seattle Mayor’s office pressed the Berkeley team rush their work so that their findings could be used to combat the University of Washington report.

Those who attended the marathon public hearing for LD 673, the law that reinstated Maine’s tip credit, may remember the testimony of Saru Jayaraman, a labor lawyer who the MPA flew in to testify about how tipping is an outdated, racist and sexist practice that subjects women to sexual harassment and other forms of cruelty.

Jayaraman is the co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a liberal organization that pushes this type of rhetoric around the country in attempt to unionize food service workers. Additionally, Jayaraman is the Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California-Berkeley, the same institution that colluded with Seattle city government to fudge the numbers and make the city’s minimum wage increase look successful rather than the disaster it has been.

Considering this is just the first batch of emails uncovered from the FOIA request, Forbes should be unearthing more corruption in the coming weeks. Additionally, the unethical link between the entities may inspire more news organizations to dig deeper into other city governments that have enacted local minimum wage ordinances.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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