Lobbying for a $12 cheeseburger

In a recent op-ed in the Congress blog, LeeAnn Hall and the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s Saru Jayaraman decry “influence-peddling” that they say is rigging the system for big business and thwarting their push for a minimum wage hike. Their panic is understandable: since the Congressional Budget Office reported that a $10.10 minimum wage mandate would kill about 500,000 working class jobs through 2016, the Senate wage hike bill has stalled.

Even worse from Big Labor’s standpoint, recent polling has shown support for a minimum wage hike implodes once respondents consider job loss.  A recent Bloomberg News National Poll found 57 percent believe it is “unacceptable” to risk 500,000 jobs even if it were to increase the incomes of 16.5 million Americans. 

So you can’t blame the union-founded Restaurant Opportunities Center for trying to reframe the narrative, though we might chuckle at its utter lack of self-awareness.  After all, ROC headlined a Washington, DC event at the AFL-CIO on April 8, and has become organized labor’s go-to mouthpiece for attacks on the tipped minimum wage.

A quick perusal of OpenSecrets disclosures shows the AFL-CIO’s multi-million dollar annual lobbying expenditures fund plenty of Beltway mansions.

But ROC is no slouch when it comes to lobbying.  In fact, ROC has been a vocal and active player in the “influence peddling” game it now decries, and has even been boastful about its own reach and effectiveness.  They’ve been at it for years, lobbying city councils, state legislatures, Congress and the executive branch.

When ROC lobbied at the Illinois state capitol for a minimum wage bill they lobbied at least 23 legislators.  They frequently post pictures of themselves lobbying U.S. senators and representatives.  And even at the local level, they are a frequent presence at city councils in Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York City, among others.

The problem is that they did all this for years while telling the IRS that they did “no” lobbying. 

Beyond its own lobbyists, ROC deploys “high road partners” to talk up its proposed minimum wage hike.  These come from the 0.01% of America’s restaurants that have signed on to shill for ROC’s labor agenda. Have you heard about their offerings?

Consider ROC partner Zingerman’s Deli of Ann Arbor, which President Obama visited last week on his distract-from-Obamacare minimum wage tour of Senate battleground states.  The small reuben sandwich the president ordered for the cameras was, according to media reports, $13.99 plus tax.

Another ROC “high road partner” is the Local Table Café in Acton, Mass., whose owner was featured in the Wall St. Journal last week calling for a minimum wage hike.  A cheeseburger there starts at $12, but that’s a bargain compared to the $13 side of cauliflower at ROC high road partner Craft restaurant in New York City.

While those prices won’t make a union honcho or Beltway lobbyist flinch, the idea that these kinds of prices can be replicated nationwide to meet Big Labor’s wage and benefit demands is simply preposterous.

It’s no wonder that ROC’s own Manhattan restaurant, COLORS, has been a failure.  Billed as “New York’s only cooperative restaurant, owned and operated by its workers” and committed to “ethical employee practices,” this showcase for labor policies has done that all too well: it’s a consistent money-loser, and has been cited repeatedly for “critical violations” by the New York City health department.  Former workers even sued ROC and Jayaraman for nonpayment of wages.

You could go there and see for yourself, except it’s currently closed to the general public.  Turns out that ROC’s policies, including its proposed massive increase in the tipped minimum wage, spell doom for actual restaurants that have to make ends meet.

Maybe in the U.C. Berkeley faculty lounge, from where Jayaraman runs ROC, $12 cheeseburgers and $13 cauliflower make perfect sense.  But in the real world, it means lost jobs and restaurant doors that read like the one at COLORS:  “Closed.”

Paranzino is communications director for ROC Exposed, a consumer watchdog that receives support from restaurants and others concerned about ROC’s campaigns against America’s restaurants.