To all of my friends and colleagues working for the tipped minimum wage, it is time to organize. We have been left out of legislation and overlooked for long enough. It is time to rise up, stand strong, and organize. And here is why…
Employees who work for the tipped minimum wage (Nationally at $2.13 an hour) have been getting looked over, left out, and bargained away for years. We can presumably say that this disregard for tipped restaurant workers dates back to at least 1991. For it was in 1991 that the minimum wage increased to $4.25 an hour and the tipped minimum wage increased to $2.13 an hour. This was the last time that the tipped minimum wage was raised. The amendments to the FLSA of 1996 cut ties between the regular minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage, leaving them as two separate wage scales, uncoupled to each other. And it’s been downhill since then for the tipped minimum wage and the millions of Americans surviving on this wage.
Since 1991, we have seen the federal minimum wage rise to 7.25 an hour, at which it currently stands. At the same time, we have also seen a reluctance of policy makers to raise the tipped minimum wage on the federal level. Twenty-four years since 1991, the tipped minimum wage is still at $2.13 an hour.
Kentucky Minimum Wage
While there are 38 states and the District of Columbia that have higher tipped minimum wages than the federal level of $2.13 an hour, Kentucky is not one of these states. In Kentucky, we have seen several attempts to raise the State minimum wage during the general assembly. This typically follows the same pattern; the bills make it out of a Democratically-controlled House, only to die in a Republican-controlled Senate. Just as recently as 2014, we saw House Bill 1 & House Bill 191 filed (regular minimum wage & tipped minimum wage, respectively), and both suffered the same fate. Word around the Capital building was that the two bills were filed separately to avoid a showdown over the tipped minimum wage – in essence, tipped minimum wage was sectioned off by itself as a sacrifice to pass the regular minimum wage. And this plan if accurate, failed miserably as both bills died.
Moving forward, with the incoming Governor Bevin, it is highly likely that if a bill were to pass both chambers of the State legislature, Governor-elect Bevin will veto the bill.
Louisville Minimum Wage Ordinance of 2014
I had the honor of working on the local minimum wage increase. At the outset, tipped minimum wage was not included. One of my greatest/e inclusion of tipped minimum wage workers (and as it stood at that point, would tie the tipped minimum wage at 45% of the regular minimum wage, which was proposed to reach 10.10 over 3 years, and would have brought the tipped minimum wage in Louisville to 4.49 an hour). Over the course of almost two years, we lobbied, held public actions, ran media campaigns, were interviewed by journalists, door knocked, and organized to make this happen. Then, towards the end of the campaign, I left my job at Kentucky jobs with justice for unrelated reasons.
Two months after leaving Kentucky Jobs with Justice, the Louisville minimum wage ordinance passed, making Louisville the first city in the US South to pass such a law. Everyone cheered, while I looked down the barrel of the shotgun – tipped minimum wage workers were sacrificed again. I spent the better part of three months mourning this loss, and all of the work I and so many others had put in to making sure the tipped minimum wage stayed in the ordinance.
Lexington Minimum Wage Ordinance
In Lexington, KY, the Fayette County Council is moving forward with an ordinance that would raise Fayette County minimum wage to 10.10 an hour over 3 years. This is the culmination of at least two years of organizing by amazing people and organizations. When people ask how I like organizing in the South, I always tell them how energizing it is. Raising the minimum wage on a local level is no easy task, but it’s happening in Kentucky.
The final vote for the Lexington Minimum Wage Ordinance is now set for November 19th, 2015. If you can make it to the hearing and vote, I encourage you to attend and show your support to raise Lexington’s minimum wage. While the proposed ordinance would raise Lexington’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over 3 years, this proposed ordinance doesn’t include tipped workers.
This all paints a very bleak picture for tipped workers, particularly in Kentucky.
Tipped Workers and Unions
Unions have long been the stronghold of workplace organizing in the US. Traditionally, workers organized based on their craft and formed unions around such. This lead to what we see today in the labor world – different unions focused on specific industries. This approach has its perks, if workers decide to organize themselves at work, they can generally find a union that focuses on the caveats of their particular industry. In my experiences in the labor movement, most unions support the fight of any worker for better wages and working conditions. In today’s world, this has become a two-way street: workers can organize themselves and find the union that best suits them to join, and unions are making massive investments in seeking out workers who want to improve their wages and/or working conditions. Keep in mind that this in the face of increasing attacks on unions, working people, and Americans in general.
So, the question arises, why aren’t tipped employees unionized? The question would seem to directly address the issue of the tipped minimum wage. But the answer to this question, while straightforward, can be murky. There are those few who would say that it simply was not worth the time, effort, and return on investment due to the generally low-wages of tipped workers, and the generally perceived fluidity of restaurant workers between companies. While this mindset is changing, I think that part of the subconscious resistance to organizing restaurant workers lie in perception. Not against people, per-se, but against the restaurant industry. Many Americans, see restaurant workers as untrained, unskilled, and undeserving. There is this rumor that all tipped workers are getting rich off of tips, so there is no reason to raise their wage. And in my time of debates, lobbying, and giving legislative presentations, it is this rumor that I have encountered more than any other reason. From my time working for $2.13 an hour, I know that this is untrue.
The most practical reason that tipped workers are not already organized is that union organizers don’t typically have a background in work as a tipped worker. This leaves union organizers at a disadvantage with a major language and communication barrier. Organizing workplaces based on an industry or craft is easier when you know the craft or trade. This is changing in Kentucky, as more and more unions are beginning to listen to tipped workers. I’ve worked with a couple unions in Louisville specifically who are ready to partner with tipped employees in their fight for higher wages and better working conditions.
What Options Are Left For Tipped Employees
At this point, this may seem like a bleak analysis of the state of tipped employees in Kentucky. And in some respects, that it is. But there is hope. The hope for tipped workers, both for higher wages and better working conditions, lies in organizing. It is by organizing that you will find common ground with your coworkers, it is by organizing that you will be able to successfully negotiate with your employer, and it is by organizing that you will be able to create the changes that we want to see.
To be transparent, organizing in your workplace comes with some very real risks of retaliation, from lowered hours, to unjust discipline, to harassment, to being terminated. I always tell workers to expect this, and more retaliatory behavior when organizing, or even considering organizing in their workplace. It’s the same as telling drivers to buckle their safety belt – not all drivers will be in a wreck where the safety belt is needed, but it is a good precaution. And so with organizing in your workplace, take precautions. Know your rights – generally workers have some protections when organizing in their workplace under the National Labor Relations Act.
Why Should Tipped Employees Organize Their Workplaces?
This is a natural question, with an answer that has been made easy – restaurant workers should organize their workplaces because the tipped minimum wage will not see any increase any time soon. Bear in mind that this is a prediction based off of the last 21 years of federal legislation, and most recently, local legislation in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky. Without legislative recourse, rising corporate greed, coupled with a reluctance of corporations to raise the minimum wage for their tipped employees, and a mislead understanding that tipped workers don’t need a raise, tipped workers have only one possible option to see a pay increase. That option is to organize themselves, form a union, and bargain for higher wages (you can also bargain for such things as paid sick days, accountable disciplinary procedures, and better scheduling). The US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division conducted a compliance sweep between 2010-2012 and found that of the 9,000 full-service restaurants, over 83% had violations.
“Organize, organize, organize.” In other words, fight. Fight for your livelihood; fight for your lives. While the median wage for non-tipped workers across the country is $16.48, the median wage for tipped workers is $10.22 in the U.S. While organizing your workplace for higher wages and better working conditions seems like a simple undertaking, I realize that it isn’t as simple as uttering the word ‘organize’. If you are tired of working for $2.13 an hour and think that organizing in your workplace is the avenue you should go, contact me here.
Strategy is highly important during a workplace organizing drive. It will pay off to be wise, to educate yourself, and to press ahead. Now let’s organize and raise the tipped minimum wage in your workplace.
Bonifacio Aleman, BSSW
**I have worked in the restaurant industry for several years as a server and a tipped employee. I also worked for a handful of years as the Director of Kentucky Jobs with Justice, a non-profit outfit focused on workers’ rights and economic justice. I had a hand in organizing workers to form the first, and only union coffee shop in Kentucky. I have participated in the Fight for 15 Campaign, in the Change Walmart campaign, and have worked closely with the KY State AFL-CIO, and several labor unions.
I also helped on the Service Workers for Justice Campaign in Louisville, in which the workers at Lynn’s Paradise Campaign rose up against horrific working conditions. I helped craft campaigns to pass three critical pieces of legislation in Louisville: Ban the Box, a Resolution Supporting the Restoration of Voting Rights, and the Minimum Wage (with the passage of this, Louisville became the first city in the South to raise the minimum wage).