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labor D.C. Council Members Join Congressional Republicans to Override Voters’ Decision to Raise Tipped Workers’ Wages

Washington DC voters passed approved an initiative to raise tipped employees minimum wage, but “Freedom Caucus” House leaders and Democrats on the DC city council say the vote shouldn’t count.


The fight over increasing the tipped minimum wage in Washington, D.C., is making for strange bedfellows. 

Having long bemoaned congressional Republicans’ habit of meddling in District affairs, a majority of the D.C. Council now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of joining in common cause with two members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. 

The Republican representatives—Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who chairs the Freedom Caucus, and Gary Palmer of Alabama—moved Wednesday to block Initiative 77, a voter-approved ballot measure that would increase the minimum wage for tipped workers in the District. The measure passed with 55 percent of the vote in the June primary elections after a vicious (and expensive) messaging campaign to defeat it.  

The Freedom Caucus push arrived the day after seven of the council’s 13 members co-introduced legislation to overturn Initiative 77, aligning local Democrats and congressional Republicans, however briefly, against the will of the D.C. electorate.

Council members Anita Bonds and Jack Evans both backed the local repeal bill, but said that they didn’t want Congress’ help in overturning the ballot measure, according to The Washington Post. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who opposed the ballot measure in the run up to the elections, also spoke out against Meadows and Palmer. “There is no good reason for congressmen who don’t represent Washingtonians or our values to meddle in our local issues,” Bowser said.

Pro-77 group One Fair Wage DC has seized upon what it views as a stunning display of a double standard by the local Democrats, circulating a video of Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson railing against previous attempts by Congress to interferewith the will of voters in the District. 

Under current law, employers may pay employees less than the city’s standard $13.25 minimum wage, so as long as their tips make up the difference. Initiative 77 would not do away with the practice of tipping, but would gradually raise the minimum wage for tipped employees (currently $3.89) until it reached parity with the other workers in the District in 2026. The standard minimum wage in D.C. is set to jump to $15 in 2020. 

Opponents of Initiative 77 contend that the measure will eat away at already razor-thin profit margins for locally owned restaurants, forcing layoffs and higher prices for customers. Supporters say doing away with District’s current two-tiered wage system would work against race-based tipping discrimination, sexual harassment and wage theft in the industry, while also offering stability to lower-earning tip workers struggling to make ends meet in a high-cost city. 

The vote on Initiative 77 (visualized here by MCI Maps) was largely decided on racial and class lines. The strongest opposition came from the District’s whiter and wealthier precincts on the west side, where many high-end restaurants are located. Meanwhile, the measure easily passed in poorer and predominantly black neighborhoods in the northeast and across the Anacostia River.

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The tipped-wage never seemed likely to be settled by a popular vote, according to advocates who have worked on the issue for years, inasmuch as District ballot measures are only advisory. That hasn’t stopped some voters in the District, however, from voicing their displeasure on social media. 

But moving so openly against the will of the voters has caused some unease among the council, which has a troubled history of overturning the will of the electorate. Ten Council members were originally opposed to Initiative 77 in the build-up tothe June 19th vote, but only seven have signed onto the repeal bill. 

Of the seven Council members supporting a repeal of the initiative, five represent wards in which the measure actually passed. Mayor Bowser herself has not yet come down in favor of a full repeal. 

The Council cannot actually negate Initiative 77 until the fall, after it returns from its summer recess. Proponents of raising the tipped wage have voiced an openness to tweaking some of the initiative’sprovisions, including the timeline of its phase-in. For them, the summer recess is an opportunity to find common ground with lawmakers. 

“We’ve always had a feeling that this was going to be a legislative fight,” Woong Chang, a local server and vocal pro-77 advocate, told the Prospect days before the primary elections. “We’ve never seen this as a ballot measure fight or a populist fight.” 

Chang, who volunteers with Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) D.C., the local branch of a national labor group pushing for a higher tipped wage, said a similar council battle played out in 2016. That fight ended with legislators reaching a compromise to gradually increase the tipped wage to $5 and the standard minimum wage to $15 by 2020. 

Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) opposed the initiative, but stopped short of pushing for a repeal. "I think we should bring in experts, hear more from the public, and then make a decision at that point," he said. "I think there’s absolutely a compromise to be had." By contrast, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who co-sponsored the repeal bill, said that a hearing will likely be held once lawmakers return from recess, but added that he sees no “middle ground.”

The coming months will provide an extra round in the big-money lobbying match up between the National Restaurant Association-backed Save Our Tips campaign and One Fair Wage DC, which is funded by ROC.