What would you do if a law were enacted that took away a large portion of your income?

For restaurant servers in Maine, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. A ballot measure passed in November 2016 contained a little-understood provision that would have substantially harmed the full-service restaurant industry and reduced our ability to earn tips. We successfully organized against it in Maine; now, we’re taking our message national.

This past spring in Augusta, at what was later described as “one of the longest (public) hearings in legislative history,” we and other members of a grass-roots movement of servers — the Restaurant Workers of Maine — spoke out against a ballot measure that had eliminated the tip credit for restaurant servers. That’s the provision in state labor law that recognizes our tips as income earned on the job, and counts the tips toward our wages.

Proponents of eliminating the tip credit described it as a “raise” for servers because they would start receiving a minimum wage of $5 an hour, rising to $12 an hour by 2024, instead of the existing minimum of $3.75. But the truth was very different, because customers confused about the new law or who thought servers were now earning enough without tips reduced or eliminated their tips.

Servers understood that losing the tip credit would have been devastating and a huge financial loss, both for our paychecks and for restaurants. Restaurants work on such small margins that in order for owners to sustain the required 220 percent pay raise for servers, they would have been forced to dramatically increase their menu prices to a level that would scare off customers. As a consequence, many owners would have chosen to eliminate tipping altogether in favor of a flat “minimum wage.” Servers who were part of the Restaurant Workers of Maine recognized how important it was to push back and ask our legislators to right this wrong and take our “raise” back.

Throughout our extensive fight, we learned that the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which pushed to abolish the tip credit in Maine, is using the same playbook around the country. Its goal is to completely upend our industry and redesign it, which would result in fewer available jobs and lower take-home pay. Although our fight was successful in Maine and Gov. Paul LePage signed the tip credit back into law, many other states still face an uphill battle. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in December that New York is looking into the possibility of removing the tip credit.

To take our fight national, we have formed a nonprofit that will push back against harmful proposals to eliminate the tip credit. In honor of our efforts in Maine, we’re calling it the Restaurant Workers of America. It’s the first organization of its kind — an employee advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation of tip income, and to the well-being of employees in the full-service restaurant industry.

Our focus is to educate both members and nonmembers about the economic and legislative issues pertaining to the restaurant industry. Specifically, the Restaurant Workers of America is dedicated to preserving the freedom and flexibility of America’s restaurant workers by advocating for a tip credit in states without one and to protect the credit where it is currently in place.

We’ve already had victories in Maine and Washington, D.C., but the fight is still going strong and needs support. In states like Michigan and Massachusetts, the Restaurant Opportunities Center and its labor allies are pursuing a strategy similar to the one used in Maine — cynically relying on the public’s lack of knowledge about the economics of our industry to get them to pass a ballot measure that will hurt us by arguing that it will help us.

The board of the Restaurant Workers of America consists of restaurant workers and one owner who have helped build grass-roots movements in their own markets — from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, and from the District of Columbia to the state of Maine. We have no illusions about the road ahead; the Restaurant Opportunities Center and its allies have big budgets and deep-pocketed donors. However, we’re hopeful for victory, knowing that our livelihoods — and the livelihoods of thousands of other servers around the country — are at stake.

Joshua Chaisson and Carrie Smith work as servers in Portland and Bangor, respectively, and are founding members of the Restaurant Workers of America.

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