After this week’s news that Seattle’s $15-minimum-wage experiment might actually be lowering residents’ incomes, restaurant workers in Maine find themselves in the strange position of being able to say, “Told you so.” The outcome of their fight with legislators — the latest in America’s ongoing wage war — has surprised labor activists and economists, and not because Governor Paul LePage overturned a voter referendum that would have raised Maine’s hourly pay by more than $8 over the next seven years (he holds the typical Republican position on raising the minimum wage). The shock was over the fact that it was the workers who were actively battling it. In November, voters gave tipped-minimum-wage earners a hefty raise — from $3.75 an hour in 2016 to $12 by 2024. But a big group of restaurant workers who rely on those tips argued that this was bad news and would backfire, thereby reducing their overall income.
Per the Washington Post, which today took an in-depth look at the fight:
A November referendum to raise both the regular and tipped minimum wages … won with 55 percent of the vote. (It required a simple majority.) But almost immediately after the vote was tallied, tipped servers began to complain that the result would hurt their livelihoods.
In addition to [a 10-hour legislative meeting in April], where opponents of the higher wage greatly outnumbered supporters, more than 5,000 people joined a Facebook group, Restaurant Workers of Maine, dedicated to overturning the referendum by mobilizing servers against it.
James Dill [a Democratic state senator in Maine’s 5th District] received hundreds of emails and phone calls from unhappy servers, he said. He initially voted for the ballot referendum because he supports a higher minimum wage. After the outcry, he signed onto a Republican measure to lower the tipped wage down again.
The Post adds that defeating the measure effectively upended conventional wisdom about the minimum wage. The workers angry about receiving a pay raise were obviously at odds with most labor activists, and even a growing number of restaurateurs who believe tipped wages are exploitative. But they argue that they just did what made sense for them. “I don’t need to be ‘saved,’ and I’ll be damned if small groups of uninformed people are voting on my livelihood,” one bartender told the Post, adding that she saw her hourly pay drop by more than $2 after the referendum passed.
The principal leaders of the movement are now trying to rally support in states like Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New York. They hope Maine’s success mobilizes workers in these places to stamp out their looming wage increases before they go into effect as well.