We are servers. We will not be silenced.
By Bethany Johnson*, Tony Korum, Serena Thomas, Emily White, and Catherine Olsen
We’re servers who want a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis, no exemptions. This means we oppose creating a tip penalty, also known as a tip credit, in Minneapolis. To fight for corporate carve-outs, the Minnesota Restaurant Association (MRA), a corporate lobby with a history of opposing workers’ rights, launched a group called Pathway to $15. Pathway pushes for a tip penalty using misinformation and language that provokes emotional responses from servers to make them fear their income is being threatened by the $15/hour for all workers.
While workers who support the MRA’s campaign were encouraged by owners to attend events and compensated with drink specials at a Pathway restaurant afterwards, service industry workers who disagree are shouted down, bullied online, and have to go to work the next day wondering if they still have a job.
Despite the MRA’s misinformation and scare-tactics, we’re not afraid to speak out. We want to expose the chilling effect of intimidation in the workplace, and highlight what we’ve faced as workers organizing to weigh in on public policy that would directly affect us.
Here are some of our experiences with intimidation:
Bethany*: I had been working at a restaurant for a year. This winter, I spoke with a food critic about why I supported $15 plus tips. Shortly after, my manager threatened to fire me at a meeting in a coffee shop with a termination slip in hand. She claimed she had already been planning to do so, but if she had wanted to fire me sooner, she wouldn’t have waited until the day after the $15 minimum wage article was headlined. She manipulated me with comments like “everyone thinks you’re stupid” and “you’re a liar,” until I explained it’s nothing personal and I would do my best to withdraw the article. The whole episode was so bad it contributed to urges of suicide. Once I explained the situation further, said I would do my best to clear her name, and she saw the state I was in, she took me back. In the end it didn’t matter because the tension was so bad I was forced to quit.
Serena: I have worked in the service industry for 10 years, and last January started working at a Pathway to $15 restaurant. I was excited to work for a female-run, female-owned restaurant. It was going well until I got a part-time job organizing tipped workers in support of One Fair Wage. Before that, the owner hadn’t been vocal with the staff about the tip penalty issue. But then everything changed. One night my boss just let me have it. She told me that I was privileged, lucky to have a front-of-house job instead of back-of-house. She said she would be slashing hours and positions if minimum wage goes up. After that night I knew it would be difficult to keep my job. My boss made me feel unwelcome. April 23rd was my last day, and it’s a big weight off my shoulders not to worry about my boss harassing me. I’m sad that someone I admire, a woman leader in the service industry, can’t see how $15 for all workers would be so beneficial for the industry with the most minimum wage employees, and that she is missing the opportunity to support this movement for a better Minneapolis.
Tony: I work at a Perkins outside Minneapolis but live in the city. I support One Fair Wage of $15 because a tip penalty in Minneapolis opens the door to a sub-minimum wage statewide, which the National Restaurant Association has been fighting for. I spoke at the Buffalo Wild Wings rally where I was shouted down by restaurant owners and managers. One of the restaurant owners harassed me online, demanding to know where I worked, re-posting my personal information, and threatening to “shut me down if I ever piped in again.” This sort of behavior is unacceptable from any member of the community but is especially threatening coming from a restaurant owner, someone who could affect my ability to get hired in the future and negatively affect my current job.
Emily: I worked at a bowling alley/bar in Minneapolis and experienced blatant wage theft. I spoke with my coworkers and most of them had similar stories. I thought we should confront the manager and ask for transparency. My coworkers were too scared to do or say anything because they thought they would lose their jobs.
I’ve also worked in North Dakota, where there is a tip penalty. I was often paid the subminimum tipping wage during cleaning and closing hours when I was unable to earn tips. No one told me that was legally wage theft.
When I attempted to publicly share my experiences at a rally, and support $15 for all workers, I was confronted by an angry group of restaurant managers and owners. Based on my experiences in the industry, I have a hard time believing they were truly there to protect the money that goes into a server’s pockets.
Catherine: I’ve been working in coffee shops and counter service cafes for over a decade, and am currently working as a barista in a high-traffic cafe in Northeast Minneapolis. Though my employer is a Pathway To 15 supporter and has made it clear to me and my coworkers that a minimum wage increase without a tip penalty would close her business and leave us unemployed, I enjoy the privilege of being able to speak openly with other workers about what a tip penalty would mean for us, and other tipped workers. I wear my 15 Now button (campaign supporting $15 for all workers without a tipped minimum wage) proudly every day while I work, which prompts some really great conversations with other workers. But my situation is the exception to the rule. What I’ve learned from these conversations is that the MRA and Pathway To 15 are fostering a conversation about workers and their rights that is driven by bosses and their interests. Almost every worker from a Pathway-supporting business is, at best, grossly misinformed about the implications of establishing a tip penalty. At worst, they have been intimidated to the point of not feeling safe talking to their bosses and co-workers about what is at stake, for fear of losing their jobs. I have spoken to an astounding number of workers who feel that talking about their position in this debate would result in retaliation from their bosses. It is clear that the voices of many tipped workers, mainly those who are already the most vulnerable, are being silenced by their bosses and business owners.
A culture of worker intimidation results when owners and managers, who have the power to fire workers, cut hours, and blacklist us from the industry, use their power to threaten our jobs, wages, and safe working conditions. Spreading fear about what may happen in the workplace if the minimum wage goes up, or threatening tip schemes that attempt to cover-up wage theft are forms of intimidation. Speaking with our co-workers about our rights in the workplace becomes increasingly risky when our bosses create an environment of hostility or fear when we express our opinions about a matter of public policy.
Last month, several of us participated in an action standing in support of 58,000 Buffalo Wild Wings workers suing the company for massive wage theft, committed by abusing the sub-minimum wage in tip penalty states. We tried to stand in solidarity with workers demanding their fair share after being exploited by a giant corporation, and we were shouted down by Pathway restaurant owners and managers. We recognize any group’s right to political action and protest, but that kind of behavior raises serious questions about Pathway to $15’s goals and tactics.
Recent news highlighted that a majority of the Minneapolis city council support a $15 minimum wage and One Fair Wage for tipped workers. We’ve been part of building a winning movement, and no amount of bullying from a group funded by the restaurant lobby and led by owners and managers can change that fact.
*Name changed to respect worker’s privacy