The Other NRA

Hundreds demonstrated at the Chamber of Commerce to expose anti-worker practices in March, 2009.Hundreds demonstrated at the Chamber of Commerce to expose anti-worker practices in March, 2009. (Photo: William Melton Jr. / SEIU)The powerful National Restaurant Association does all it can to assure that industry wages are kept so low many workers rely on public assistance and that paid sick leave – along with taxes – are avoided, making employees go hungry and customers sick.

When you’re as powerful as the National Restaurant Association, you set the industry’s wage and just about everything else.

McDonald’s, Olive Garden and Burger King are just some of the corporations ruining our economy with poverty wages and business practices that make employees go hungry and make customers sick. Along with virtually all the major restaurant corporations out there, they belong to one of the most powerful lobbies in the country: the National Restaurant Association.

Members of the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) are titans of our fast-food nation: perpetuating climate change and pollution by sourcing huge amounts of factory-raised animals, slinging increasingly unhealthy food and fighting our right to know about what’s in the food we’re eating. The “other NRA” has lobbied for years against menu-labeling initiatives, until ultimately stripping states of their right to enact such laws. Other public-health policies the NRA has vigorously opposed include soda taxes, trans-fat bans, and lowering sodium levels, which are sky-high in most big chain restaurants. Just as some restaurants are starting to respond to consumer demand for ethically raised animals, the National Restaurant Association tasked its public relations gun-for-hire Rick Berman to mock restaurants that have pledged to source humanely raised pigs, even defending the use of gestation crates by “setting the facts straight” at maternitypens.com.

Unfortunately, the NRA’s warped view of maternity doesn’t end there. Despite women making up the majority of the restaurant workforce, the NRA has actively opposed legislation like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Family Medical Leave Act, which aim to ensure economic security for women and their families. In general, the trade group is not pleased with the advancement of women’s equality in the workplace – they’ve even opposed the Paycheck Fairness Act. That’s not surprising, considering they’ve successfully lobbied to keep the federal tipped minimum wage at $2.13 per hour since 1991, and the majority of servers earning that abysmally low base-wage – and who are consequently living off tips – are women. Because they have to please customers to earn their livelihoods, these tipped workers are especially vulnerable to wage theft and sexual harassment. In fact, the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC, with 37 percent of all charges originating from the industry – that’s five times the rate of the general female workforce.

Thanks to the NRA, corporate full-service restaurants – Red Lobster, IHOP, Applebee’s – are effectively getting away with not even paying their workforce. With a subminimum wage as low as $2.13, servers regularly end up with $0 paychecks. Tax dollars supporting public-assistance programs go disproportionately to food-service workers; in fact, servers use SNAP at twice the rate of the general workforce. Money spent on “tips” at the end of a meal make up the majority, if not the entirety, of a server’s wages. Even worse, our tax dollars are subsidizing CEO pay as well. A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, “Restaurant Industry Pay: Taxpayers Double Burden” shows that during the past two years, the CEOs of the 20 largest NRA members pocketed more than $662 million in fully deductible “performance pay,” lowering their companies’ IRS bills by an estimated $232 million. The company that has enjoyed the largest CEO-pay subsidy is Darden, the owner of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and several other chains. Darden CEO Clarence Otis took in nearly $9 million in fully deductible “performance pay” over the years 2012 and 2013. That works out to a more than $3 million taxpayer subsidy. That means we’re helping corporate restaurants pay their workers and their CEOs.

Not only is the NRA influencing legislation and votes, they’re toying with what can be voted on. This is most visible in the fight for paid sick days. Despite (and in response to) widespread public support for paid sick days, the NRA has partnered with some of its corporate members like Disney and Darden Restaurants Inc. to preemptively ban localities across the country from being able to pass legislation that would make paid sick days mandatory. Currently, 90 percent of restaurant workers report not having paid sick days and a majority have had to work while sick. New research shows that just going out to eat doubles your chances of getting sick. Apparently, the NRA wants to make sure it stays that way.

When the NRA attempts to defend its agenda, it usually claims to be watching out for small “mom and pop” restaurants that would, allegedly, go out of business if required to pay a higher minimum wage or offer paid sick days. That’s not just historically inaccurate, 6 in 10 small business owners support raising the minimum wage and a majority already pay above it. Sure, some small restaurant owners may be wary of raising wages, but they’re competing against corporate restaurant chains that pay poverty wages, serve up cheap food, and expect taxpayers to subsidize their workers’ pay and the bloated salaries of their CEOs.

A lobby this powerful and multifaceted has made a lot of enemies. Leading women’s-rights, health, food, environmental, corporate accountability, and workers’-rights groups recently cosigned a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for Congress to stop accepting the NRA’s corporate lobbying cash. That coalition is going to grow, and fast, so long as the NRA continues to sacrifice our health, planet, and our democracy in favor of supersized profits.