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Another Voice: Waiters and bartenders under threat in New York

By Wendyll Caisse

New York servers and bartenders have quite a battle on their hands.

A quirky New York state law allows the governor to bypass the state legislature to make changes to the state's minimum wage laws for tipped employees.  On the one side of this fight are thousands of restaurant workers who've mobilized in opposition; on the other side is a well-funded labor group called the Restaurant Opportunities Center, or ROC.

Labor unions often portray themselves as the underdog in these policy fights. This time, it's the restaurant servers who are "David" to the well-funded Goliath that's advocating for tip credit elimination.

Some history: Our story started last year in Maine when ROC was trying to eliminate the state’s tip credit. (For reference, a tip credit allows restaurant owners to pay servers below the standard minimum hourly wage assuming that once server’s tips are included, their hourly rate will far surpass the minimum wage--and it usually does.) A server at a Bangor, Maine steakhouse, set up a private Facebook page with 15 initial participants in October of 2016, to educate on the harm of this proposal.

These real servers had no voice with the massive, out of state funding (provided by ROC) that pushed through this referendum to eliminate the tip credit. The Facebook page flourished after the ballot box win, growing to more than 5,000 members, because servers realized that eliminating the tip credit would compromise the tipping system--and put their tip income at risk.

This ultimately led to the formation of the Restaurant Workers of Maine--and the reinstatement of the tip credit with bipartisan support. Fast forward to today; Our Restaurant Workers of Maine has grown into Restaurant Workers of America, as we look to educate legislators, servers, and voters elsewhere on the harm of tip credit elimination.

New York is in the midst of the same battle Maine went through just a year prior, and this time, we have a large headcount. Over 18,000 servers and bartenders and industry supporters throughout greater New York have joined together to push back against ROC. Our grassroots efforts across the country to save the tip credit are true regional uprisings populated by those most affected in each area – and that’s why it’s working.

While these servers don't have much monetary backing, the support and our interests represent those of real servers. ROC, on the other hand, is a national organization with a multi-million-dollar budget working against the voices of thousands of servers. And ROC has the eyes and ears of New York legislature. According to New York state filings, ROC has already spent over $80,000 in their lobbying efforts.

Even with a massive monetary backing, ROC didn’t expect the uprising of RWA and others most affected by this mandate, and now they’re trying to prove they have the upper hand. The tipped employees in New York and RWA are a force to be reckoned with even without national funding, we’re not interested in Hollywood’s opinion, dubiously constructed ‘research’ or party politics: we just want our tip credit.

ROC is persistent in its fight to take away income from servers, even to attack RWA and falsely accuse us of being tied to national groups like the National Restaurant Association or other out of state backers. Ignore the noise; we can't match ROC's budget, but by mobilizing servers we can defeat its harmful agenda.

Wendyll Caisse is a restaurant owner in Maine and a founding member of the Restaurant Workers of America.

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