It has been twelve years since the federal minimum wage increased to $7.25—the longest period America has gone without raising the minimum wage since it was established in 1938. Even worse, the paltry $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers has not changed since 1991. The corporate lobbyists at the National Restaurant Association are one of the primary reasons millions of American workers have not received a raise in years.
You may not have heard of the National Restaurant Association, but it’s likely your member of Congress knows exactly who they are. For years, “the other NRA” has been one of the most powerful industry groups in Washington, spending more than $2.5 million annually on lobbying. Their representatives work overtime to obstruct legislation that would improve the lives of working people, including measures that would eliminate the gender pay gap, guarantee sick leave, and restrict marketing junk food to kids. In 2017, they helped kill a rule that would have provided workers an extra $1.2 billion in overtime pay.
The National Restaurant Association bills itself as representing local restaurants, but it is bankrolled and driven by large global corporations like McDonald’s; Denny’s; YUM! Brands, which owns Taco Bell and KFC; Disney; and Darden Restaurants, the owner of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, and Capital Grille. The CEOs of these companies rake in millions every year, while their workers make minimum wage—or even less.
One of the National Restaurant Association’s biggest priorities is maintaining the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, a policy rooted in the legacy of slavery. Employers in the U.S. broadly adopted the practice of tipping after the passage of the 15th Amendment to avoid having to pay actual wages to newly freed Black workers. Later, this carveout became enshrined into law. While employers are technically supposed to make up the difference between a worker’s tips and the minimum wage, wage theft is rampant in industries with tipped workers and enforcement is challenging. As such, tipped service sector workers are twice as likely to live in poverty and rely on food stamps than the general workforce. The sub-minimum wage exacerbates racial and gender pay disparities, as 40 percent of tipped workers are people of color and more than two thirds are women.
In addition to flooding federal, state, and local governments with lobbyists, the National Restaurant Association pours money into political campaigns. They have contributed almost $16.5 million to both parties since 1990, ensuring lawmakers side with fast food CEOs over working people. While nearly 80 percent of their contributions go to Republicans, who more reliably oppose increasing workplace protections and rights, six Senate Democrats received campaign support from them in the 2020 campaign cycle—including Senator Kyrsten Sinema who received $10,600. The NRA’s lobbying power, combined with other forces in the big business lobby, are a big part of the reason the federal minimum wage has not budged for years even though there is widespread bipartisan support for increasing the minimum wage among the general public.
Despite the National Restaurant Association’s alarmist rhetoric that increasing the minimum wage will force restaurants to lay off workers, raise prices, and close up shop, there is little evidence that this is the case. Research suggests that fast-food chains can absorb the costs of an increased minimum wage without cutting employment or lowering average profit. Fast food executives and National Restaurant Association members even acknowledge they can afford to increase wages, with Domino’s Pizza CEO Richard Allison telling investors “we’ve been able to manage our way through a lot of minimum wage increases across the country.”
With their deep pockets and fear mongering tactics, the National Restaurant Association has been extremely successful in beating back policies that would increase minimum wage and eliminate the tipped wage at the federal, state, and local level. But working people have fought back. In 2012, the Fight for $15 campaign emerged, demanding a $15 per hour wage and a union so all workers can support their families and be respected at work. Workers, advocates, and high-road employers organize together across the country with the One Fair Wage coalition and the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), continuing to push for higher wages, better benefits, and improved worker justice and equity standards across the restaurant and food service industries.
Even with the odds stacked against them, the movement has achieved some success: seven states and thirty-four cities and counties have increased their minimum wage to $15, and eight states have eliminated the sub-minimum tipped wage. And as the country reopens following the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of restaurant owners are recognizing that the status quo is inadequate and are raising their wages in order to compete for workers.
While individual localities and employers should be applauded for improving restaurant and food service workers’ wages and benefits, minimum wage workers need more to achieve a decent standard of living. The Raise the Wage Act would increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 and phase out the tipped minimum wage, increasing pay for 32 million Americans and establishing a more equitable economy. This is the bare minimum to ensure that workers are actually paid a fair wage—if the minimum wage had kept up with productivity since the late 1960s, it would be at least $24 per hour.
The federal minimum wage is insufficient by any reasonable measure. Our policymakers need to stop listening to industry lobbying groups that fight to keep pay low and instead trust workers, advocates, and evidence: we need to raise the minimum wage and implement one fair wage for all.