D.C. Waiters Bash Union Front 

Labor activists seek to repeal $15 minimum wage for restaurant workers

Demonstrators fighting for a $15-per-hour minimum wage march through downtown during rush hour on May 23, 2017 in Chicago
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A Labor front group is using out-of-state petition gatherers to salvage a minimum wage law opposed by many restaurant workers.

In October the D.C. City Council voted 8-5 to overturn a ballot initiative that would have forced a $15 hourly wage upon tipped workers despite outcry from the waiters it was supposed to help. Labor activists from the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a worker center launched by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and other groups are trying to gather nearly 25,000 signatures to force the Democratically controlled council to adopt a minimum wage of $15 for all workers. Their effort has received significant pushback from local workers.

Big Al, a bartender in Washington, D.C., said he was relieved when the City Council reneged on Ballot Initiative 77, which passed 56-44. D.C. adopted a $15 minimum wage in 2016, but granted exemptions to workers receiving tips. The new rules prescribed hourly minimums of $5 an hour by 2020, up from the $2.77 they received prior. Big Al has been a waiter and bartender at the Bottom Line for more than two decades and said his earnings are far higher than the $15 an hour prescribed by the initiative. He said the new rate would cause him to lose money.

"All of the customer's money that was going to me [through tips] will go to the [restaurant] owners," he said.

Despite opposition from those in the service industry labor activists have been working to gather 24,993 signatures to overturn the City Council. Those efforts have included bringing activists from across the country to lobby for the bill. One D.C. area bartender confronted activists from Los Angeles gathering petitions on the street. The men confirmed they had no affiliation with the workers they were claiming to represent.

"You came here from L.A. to do this?," the woman says in a video obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. The man affirms that he is from Los Angeles, his partner from New Jersey. He is holding a "Save Our Vote" sign. When the woman asks if the men are being paid minimum wage to campaign on behalf of restaurant workers they decline to answer.

"It really all depends on who I turn into. I could turn into any Tom, Dick, or Harry. It all pays different," one activist says.

Michael Sydnor, an employee at Farragut Square's Barcode, said the way the restaurant industry operates is really not all that different from the way the labor activist described his own work: Tom, Dick, and Harry are paid differently depending on how they serve their customers. Sydnor opposed Initiative 77 because he expected it to hurt workers' paychecks, especially those at the bottom of the ladder without college degrees.

"This is one of the few jobs where people can make a decent living that supports their family," he said. "They [activists] are pushing for something that's supposed to benefit us, but they're pushing for something we don't support."

The Restaurant Opportunities Center did not return request for comment.

"Go get rid of it," Sydnor said.

The petitions to overturn the city council's repeal must be submitted by Thursday.