Some hard working minimum wage ME earners. Photo by Jeff Kirlin
Editorial by Rep. Justin Chenette
As the president of the Maine Young Democrats, I take very seriously questions regarding creating unnecessary division in an environment where forward motion for progressive political change requires both political figures and grassroots activists to stand together in advancing a political program, even when perfect consensus between the grassroots and those in office is rare, or even impossible. I believe that sometimes in order to get closer to “perfect,” you need to sometimes fight for things that are simply “good.”
That mediation between ideals and political realities is never a clean one, and those in the business of creating a space for change within the political process have to constantly assess where the line is between bending and breaking questions of moral principle: is conceding ten percent to get ninety percent of what you want an acceptable compromise? What about getting ten and giving ninety? Each decision requires an evaluation of your core principles, your leverage to get more than what is on the table, and who compromise might leave behind.
That last –who gets left behind in a compromise– is one that must now be considered on the news this week that eight Democratic members of the Legislature are co-sponsoring a Republican-backed bill that would roll back a key provision of the minimum wage referendum passed overwhelmingly by Maine voters last November, stripping tipped workers from the new law and keeping them at a subminimum wage.
According to federal data, tipped workers in Maine earn on average only around $9.00 an hour, and with food service industries disproportionately represented by women who face some of the highest rates of workplace sexual harassment in the country (which has, not coincidentally, been tied to the power imbalance between customers and servers that tipping creates), these workers are some of the most vulnerable in the state. To make matters worse, food service workers must stand up to the political might of the National Restaurant Association (and its Maine-based affiliate, the Maine Restaurant Association), which has fought to strip tipped workers from minimum wage laws for decades.
When citizens and organizers came together to draft and pass the minimum wage referendum into law, they included tipped workers in that referendum despite knowing that it would draw significant opposition from the MRA, a group that is so anti-worker that it continued to lobby Sen. Susan Collins to support failed Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder even after revelations of egregious violations of workplace protections and personal standards of conduct came to light. They did so because they recognized that compromising here and leaving tipped-workers out of the legislation was an unacceptable condition of victory. Even getting the majority of Maine workers a raise at the expense of tipped workers was not an acceptable trade-off in this fight.
This strategic gamble, this failure to compromise on a key moral principle, was fortunately vindicated at the ballot box by Maine voters.
Because the minimum wage referendum is now law, legislators would have to affirmatively pass a bill that overrules the will of the voters and strips out the tipped-wage provision. If these eight members of the Democratic caucus join a unanimous Republican bloc, this bill could very well become law. If this occurs, the legislators who supported this measure will be forced to account for their actions, even from someone like myself who recognized the difficult line even the most progressive legislators must walk. Because rather than working to thread the needle between a moral and political victory for Maine voters and workers, these Democratic cosponsors – and, certainly the seemingly unanimous bloc of Republicans ready to stand beside them – would rob us of both.