The Other NRA is Exploiting Workers

We’ve known for a long time that the National Restaurant Association (the “other” NRA) is an awful organization. As a representative of some of the biggest, most profitable, and often most exploitative businesses in the restaurant industry, the NRA has fought for years to keep the tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers as low as possible. Unfortunately, it’s been largely successful and has kept Congress from raising it above $2.13 an hour for an astonishing 30 years.

The NRA has been an obstacle to economic security for restaurant workers for a long time, but last week, The New York Times published a bombshell report that reveals the NRA has stooped to new, unbelievable lows in its fight to suppress worker pay. According to the Times report, the NRA has created an arrangement where restaurant workers are unknowingly forced to pay for lobbying efforts to keep their own pay low.

Back in 2007, the NRA bought ServSafe, an online food safety training class for restaurant workers, and then successfully lobbied in many states to make that type of training mandatory for all “food handlers” in restaurants. The NRA’s purchase of ServSafe has been extremely profitable, with almost all of its revenue coming directly out of the pockets of restaurant workers, who are typically forced to pay for the training themselves. Since 2010, the NRA has raked in no less than $25 million in revenue as more than 3.6 million workers have paid $15 to take ServSafe’s course. 

And what is the NRA spending that money on? Aggressive anti-worker lobbying campaigns. Between 2007 (when the NRA bought ServSafe) and 2021, the organization more than doubled its spending on politics and lobbying. Over the last decade, they spent $38.4 million on lobbying alone. They also boosted the number of lobbyists on their payroll, many of whom are former government officials who milk their established connections on the Hill to score legislative wins – most notably, their Executive Vice President, Sean Kennedy, who served as a senior official in the Obama White House (and happens to be married to a prominent pollster for conservative Democrats).

Over the years, the NRA has devoted most of its lobbying war chest to fighting campaigns that would increase minimum wages at the state and federal levels. Their efforts came to a spectacular head in 2021 when the group managed to rally eight members of the Senate Democratic caucus to torpedo a bill that would have raised the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years and eliminated the subminimum tipped wage.

In short, the Times report shows that many of the funds that the NRA used to kill wage increases for workers came from workers themselves. In other words, by paying to take the training course through the NRA-owned ServSafe, workers are unwittingly paying for lobbying efforts to keep their own wages low. It’s shocking but, unfortunately, not altogether surprising for an organization that seems to pride itself on finding ways to suppress worker pay.

Unfortunately, while this arrangement is outrageous, it’s apparently completely legal. But that doesn’t mean we need to sit idly by and let low-wage restaurant workers get swindled. Last week, the Patriotic Millionaires sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to sign a pledge being circulated by One Fair Wage – one of our allies that has been at the forefront of the battle to eliminate the tipped minimum wage – to refuse to accept money from the NRA’s PAC. The NRA is a toxic organization, and any member of Congress who wants to say they’re on the side of working people needs to take a stand against it and its ill-gotten lobbying funds.

At its core, this isn’t about a fight between restaurant workers and owners. The NRA does not represent the entire restaurant industry: it represents a subsection of owners committed to profiting off a short-sighted model built on exploitation. We believe, as many other restaurant owners do, that there’s a better way. When workers do better, everyone does better in the long run, including businesses. Time and again, research shows that minimum wage increases help, not hurt, business growth.

This isn’t a surprise in an economy based on consumer demand. When workers have more money in their pockets from increased wages, they’ll spend it more broadly in their local economies, which gives everyone a boost. Paying cooks and servers more might hurt restaurant owners’ bottom lines in the short term, but the long-term payoff is certainly worth any short-lived, mild financial pain.

We won’t hold our breath waiting for the NRA to stop taking advantage of workers. But we also won’t stop fighting to make it clear to Congress just how toxic the money they’re getting from the NRA is.

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