Minimum Wage Activists Call Tipping Racist

By Higgins, Sean | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, March 31, 2017 | Go to article overview

Minimum Wage Activists Call Tipping Racist


Higgins, Sean, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


Tipping is racist.

That's the argument being forwarded by some liberal activists and politicians as a way of stigmatizing laws that exempt certain professions, mainly restaurant workers, from the federal minimum wage.

However, there is little historical evidence for the argument.

"I don't think tipping was particularly racial ... It was more a matter of customers showing off their wealth," said Gerald Friedman, professor of economics and history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and associate editor of the scholarly journal Labor History.

Nevertheless, activists pushing for a higher minimum wage have pushed the argument now that their movement has gained ground. Nineteen states are set to phase in higher minimum rates this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That has brought more attention to the exception for tipped employees in most minimum wage laws. Those employees, mostly in the service industry, can legally be paid less the standard minimum on the grounds that their tips make up for it.

Minimum wage fans have argued that that's not merely wrong but a vestige of 19th racism. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said in a February op-ed that "tipping as an institution is rooted in the history of slavery." Hodges has advocated that her city adopt a $15 minimum wage that would not allow exceptions for tips.

"The notion of tipping is not native to America, but was imported from Europe just as slaves were emancipated. At that time, restaurants and railroads insisted that the now-former slaves who were working in those industries were not worthy of earning a wage and should subsist on the kindness of customers' tips alone," she said.

Shake Shack franchise founder Danny Meyer, who has prohibited tipping at his restaurants, made a similar claim in a January speech at New York's Manhattanville College.

Meyer said the restaurant and railroad industries "successfully petitioned the U.S. government to make a dispensation for our industries that we would not pay our servers" and have them rely on gratuities instead. "And no surprise, most of the people who were working in service professional jobs and restaurants and in Pullman train cars were African-American."

It is not clear what action Meyer was referring to. The first federal minimum wage law, which included an exception for tipped employees, passed in 1938 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

Hodges and Meyer were both apparently citing claims of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a labor-backed nonprofit activist group that has been a major advocate of the $15 minimum wage.

ROC United co-director Saru Jayaraman said in a 2015 op-ed for the New York Times that the minimum wage had an "ugly, racialized history." She said that 19th century restaurant owners and railway companies fought legal efforts to outlaw tipping "especially since many of their workers were African-American, in many cases freed slaves whom these employers resented having to pay at all. …

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