Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) are demanding answers from the U.S.’s leading restaurant industry group after an explosive New York Times investigation revealed that the group has, unbeknownst to workers, used millions of dollars of workers’ own pocket money to lobby against raising their wages.
In a letter to National Restaurant Association (NRA) President Michelle Korsmo this week, Warren, Sanders, and four other Democratic senators condemned the industry for this practice. They said that the group, which spends millions lobbying on behalf of restaurant employers and against raising the minimum and subminimum wage, must explain the “unconscionable” practice and reveal the extent of the scheme.
“You owe workers an answer as to why you are secretly using their funds to lobby against their interests,” the lawmakers said. In an interview with Rolling Stone this week, Warren added that the practice is “shameful.”
Last month, The New York Times unveiled that the NRA is secretly forcing workers to pay into their lobbying group, ServSafe, and has raised $25 million in revenue from workers since 2010. When workers start a job, they are often required to pay roughly $15 to attend a basic online food safety course offered by ServSafe, which is by far the dominant company in this space.
Millions of workers have taken this course, which is offered across all 50 states. Over the last roughly 12 years, the $25 million of worker money has represented about 2 percent of the NRA’s total revenue and amounts to more than the NRA spent on lobbying. This scheme appears to be entirely legal, experts said.
Though the group has dabbled in climate denial — lobbying against curtailing the use of gas stoves — and lobbied early in the COVID-19 pandemic to keep restaurants open despite the high risk to diners and workers, much of its lobbying efforts are aimed at suppressing workers’ wages.
Over the past 60 years, the NRA’s lobbying has “focused heavily” on keeping the minimum wage low, New York Times investigators wrote. The last time the lobby lost a campaign was in 2007, when Congress passed the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. That was when the group started contemplating new forms of revenue, including buying ServSafe, the report finds.
On the federal level, the industry has been winning ever since. As for states, the NRA sends lobbying funds to state level industry organizations, and has won state-level fights like convincing four of the largest states to mandate food safety training like theirs.
“Requiring these workers to fund advocacy for policies that keep their wages down and leave many of them in poverty is unconscionable,” the lawmakers wrote. “The National Restaurant Association’s underhanded and unscrupulous weaponization of ServSafe to fund its anti-worker lobbying operation by funneling the fees workers pay for the program into the very lobbying scheme that advocates to keep their wages and benefits stagnant deserves further scrutiny.”
The letter asks the NRA to elucidate how much it’s made from ServSafe courses and how much of the money was spent on lobbying, and to indicate whether it plans on communicating with workers over how the fees are being used in the future.
The value of the minimum wage is currently at a 66-year low. Lawmakers have been pushing to raise the minimum wage for years now, but their efforts have been thwarted time and again by conservatives on both sides of the aisle; the original “Fight for $15” campaign waged by fast food workers is now over a decade old. Last month, Sanders called for the federal minimum wage to be raised to $17 an hour — but any such proposal would be unlikely to pass, as restaurant and other corporate industry lobbyists maintain a strong grip over politicians in D.C. and beyond.
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