A debate over whether Washington, D.C., restaurant workers should trade their tips for $15 an hour went off the rails after a labor activist race baited a black bartender who opposed the minimum wage hike.
Jessica Martin, a D.C. activist who serves on the board of directors of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), alluded to Frank Mills as an "Uncle Tom" because of his opposition to Ballot Initiative 77. Mills, a bartender at Jack Rose in the city's Adams Morgan neighborhood, defended the tipped wage, disputing ROC arguments that tips directly lead to sexual harassment in the industry. Mills said the city's restaurant scene has been one of female empowerment.
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"The very progressive city that D.C. is, there are female bosses, there's female bartenders, female owners. There are female head bartenders. There are female head servers. There are female head chefs. There are females that are cocktail queens and are beasts and we respect them more than anybody else," he said during the debate hosted by the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild on Monday.
Martin interjected, but rather than challenging Mills's argument, she suggested he was recruited to speak because of his race. She accused the bartender of undermining ROC's attempt to help workers to better serve restaurant owners.
"There always have been and always will be black people, people of color, who will fight against things that are trying to serve them," said Martin, who is also black. The comment elicited groans and a cry of "Oh my God" from an audience member. She doubled down on the accusation. "Malcolm X [said] it many a times: Every time you got something to say, they always find somebody else who will come right up in there and say, ‘No suh, I don't see racism,'" she said.
Martin has been an outspoken labor activist, rising through the ranks of the Restaurant Opportunities Center. She not only sits on the board of directors for the national ROC United organization, but has also been called a "member leader" of the D.C. chapter. ROC did not respond to inquiries about whether it stands by Martin's statements.
Mills brushed off the remark and returned to the topic.
"I will never allow anybody to victim blame, and you are starting to do exactly that. And at the end of the day when you victim blame you become part of the problem," he said.
D.C. passed a $15 minimum wage for all hourly employees in 2016, but the final bill exempted tipped workers from the full increase, instead raising the tipped wage to $5 an hour. Labor activists have lobbied for similar legislation in other states but have faced pushback from restaurant employees who prefer to maintain the system. Maine lawmakers rescinded a policy that would have raised the $3.75 tipped wage to $12 an hour after public outcry from servers in 2017. Mills said ROC should pursue policies that restaurant workers, rather than labor activists, want.
"You fight for us right? Well right now we don't want this, so therefore stop fighting … [servers] oppose you at this very moment," Mills said.
D.C. voters will decide on Ballot Initiative 77 on June 19.