Activism

Progressive Restaurant Owners Stand with Workers to Fight for Better Wages at Big Corporate Food Chains like Pizza Hut and KFC

The groups have a radical vision for what they want restaurants—and America—to be.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United lobbies Congress. Left to Right: Peter Ellis, owner of El Fuego restaurant in Philadelphia; Britton Loftin, National Policy Coordinator at ROC United; Dmitri Syrkin-Nikolau, owner of Dimo's Pizza in Chicago; Carlos Romero, organizer in Chicago; and Calvin Okunye, organizer in Philadelphia.
Photo Credit: Mara Kardas-Nelson

Of the five of them, only one wears a tie. Another wears a T-shirt. All are under the age of 40; only one is white. All are former restaurant workers, and two are now restaurant owners. Only one lives in DC, the other four making their homes in either Chicago or Philadelphia.

This is not the contingent you expect to see lobbying in the halls of Congress. And that's exactly the point. Members of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, which represents 13,000 restaurant workers and thousands of consumers uniting to improve restaurant wages and working conditions, and Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE), a ROC initiative made up of 100 restaurant owners supportive of ROC's efforts, are in Washington, D.C., this week to push back against efforts of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), a multi-million-dollar outfit that represents some of the biggest names in corporate food.

The "other NRA" counts among its members corporations like Starbucks, Darden Restaurants (which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Capitol Grille, among others), and Yum! Brands (owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC). It wields huge influence in American politics and policy, historically pushing back on efforts to raise the minimum wage, close the pay gap between men and women, and require nutritional labeling on foods.

This week marks the group's annual lobbying blast, with handfuls of NRA lobbyists descending on the hill to pressure Congress to keep wages low and profits sky-high. On the heels of a successful economic justice protest, in which ROC and hundreds of other groups from across the nation stopped mid-day DC traffic to demand an increase in the minimum wage, ROC and RAISE members met with members of Congress on Tuesday to show elected officials that the NRA is not representative of all restaurant owners, and that the corporate-led industry is in desperate need of a shakeup.

Peter Ellis, owner of El Fuego restaurant in Philadelphia, and Dmitri Syrkin-Nikolau, owner of Dimo's Pizza in Chicago, both RAISE members, came to DC to show Congress that restaurants can pay living wages rather than locking employees into poverty-level jobs. Take Ellis' El Fuego: once a former employee of the burrito spot, Ellis bought the restaurant two years ago and immediately raised his workers' wages to $11 an hour. He also offers paid sick leave.

"Two of my workers are single-mothers, and if their kids' daycares are closed for a day so that they can't go into work, they shouldn't be punished by not making a salary for that day," Ellis says. "I have a wife and a kid and I know that if my kid's daycare is closed I can go home, no problem, but other people can't just because of their circumstance and that's not fair." Rather than being unprofitable—as the NRA insists businesses would be if they had to pay a living wage—Ellis has seen El Fuego's profits increase by 20% in the past two years.

Syrkin-Nikolau, who started working in restaurants when he was 16 and opened Dimo's Pizza five years ago, pays his employees $8.50 an hour as a starting wage, a rate that rises quickly as workers take on more shifts. With business booming, there are now two Dimo's Pizzas in Chicago, and Syrkin-Nikolau employees 50 people. He offers full health coverage (including dental and vision) and a 401K to full-time employees.

Ellis and Syrkin-Nikolau say that paying a living wage means that they have "overwhelming" staff loyalty and almost no staff turnover. Syrkin-Nikolau recalls a staff member, who broke his shoulder and collar bone in a bike accident, couldn't wait to get back to work after three weeks of paid leave. Ellis says once workers starting earning more, staff morale went up, and customer service got better, which he credits to El Fuego's booming popularity.

The restaurant owners were joined by Britton Loftin, National Policy Coordinator at ROC United, and Calvin Okunye and Carlos Romero, ROC organizers, in hitting the steely halls of Congress to counter NRA lobbying activities. The groups have a radical vision for what they want restaurants—and America—to be. In a ROC and RAISE organizing session before lobbying began Tuesday, dozens of ROC and RAISE members noted that they want RAISE restaurants to "fight institutionalized racism" and "change the culture of work."

But they're also pragmatic: their current lobbying efforts center around pushing for the passage of a bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, allow for indexing so that the federal minimum wage keeps pace with the cost of living, and ensures that the tipped minimum wage is at least at 70% of the federal minimum wage (having not been changed in over 20 years, it's currently $2.13 an hour, hovering at just 30% of the federal minimum wage).

Lobbying Against the Other NRA

As current or former restaurant workers, ROC and RAISE members know better than anyone the realities of trying to live on a tipped minimum wage, and the dire effect it has on families and communities. The statistics are staggering: while the NRA insisted in a letter circulated to Congress on Monday that "the average household income of restaurant employees who earn the federal minimum wage is $62,507," six out of 10 of the lowest paid jobs in America are restaurant jobs.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, compared to the average worker, tipped workers are more than twice as likely to fall below the federal poverty line, and almost three times as likely to rely on food stamps. While law requires employers to fill in the holes when tips don't bring workers' take home pay on par with the federal minimum wage, a Department of Labor investigation showed that from FY2010-2012, nearly 84% of 9,000 restaurants investigated didn't comply.

"Fixing the minimum wage won't fix everything, but it does help to shift the bottom up," Romero said during the lobbying visits. "People are losing everything, and we need to give them some kind of hope."

It seems an obvious solution to raise the minimum wage floor, but ROC and RAISE have a tough fight ahead of them: the bill is unlikely to get enough votes to make it to debate in the Senate this week.

ROC and RAISE are also up against a formidable enemy. Loftin is ROC's only lobbyist; the NRA had 37 registered as of 2013 (ROC notes that given the increasing trend of many lobbyists not officially registering as lobbyists, but still doing lobbying work, the size of their team may in fact be much greater). According to a new ROC investigation released yesterday, the NRA and its members have given $63.8 million in disclosed federal contributions since 1989. As Loftin notes, the NRA spends millions annually so that their members don't have to offer their workers a living wage.

The NRA's influence on the Hill was obvious at the group's second lobbying appointment. Staffers from the office of Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) met with ROC and RAISE members, as Donnelly himself was speaking at the NRA's national convention. A conservative Democrat, Donnelly is supportive of a $9 minimum wage, but wants any move toward raising the floor to have bipartisan support.

While some in Congress may be wed to the NRA, ROC and other groups pushing for a minimum wage increase have the public's support behind them. According to a January 2014 Pew Research Center poll, 73% of Americans surveyed supported raising the minimum wage. Already seven states don't differentiate between tipped and non-tipped workers, meaning that all workers receive the same minimum wages. Minnesota, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and Hawaii have all recently approved an increase in their state's minimum wage.

Some Congress staffers are also sympathetic to low-wage workers. One staffer told ROC and RAISE members that his girlfriend worked at IHOP throughout college, and would sometimes come home crying if a big table didn't tip. While skeptical of Washington's games today, Romero is hopeful that sympathetic young staffers can help to change the system in the long run.

"These guys that are in here, they're from our generation and they get it," he says. Romero sees the coupling of yesterday's successful street action and today's lobbying as a way to bring reality into the halls of Congress. "It's important to have a street presence and a political presence and a policy presence," he says. "We need to go out onto the streets and engage with the community and then come in here to bring people on the same page. It's important to merge the two."

Syrkin-Nikolau sees the RAISE movement as only the beginning. "We should be working towards a culture where employees and employers…drive economic growth together. We've been pushed to the other side of the spectrum [in America], and we're pushing back.

"Everyone is the little guy sometime," he says, while walking from one Senate office to another. "If you stopped every time someone said you can't do it, think of the things that wouldn't exist today."

 

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a freelance journalist covering health, policy and the environment.