Elizabeth Warren Is Furious with the Restaurant Lobby

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For decades, a major restaurant lobby has devoted millions of dollars to stomping out bills that would improve the lives of the industry’s workers — including attempts to raise state and federal minimum wages to $15 per hour. As it turns out, the workers who stood to gain from those legislative efforts had unwittingly funded the restaurant lobby’s war on them. Now, a group of Democratic senators are demanding answers to find out how workers came to fund a fight against their own interests.

The demands come in a letter, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), asking the National Restaurant Association to turn over information about the ties between ServSafe — its worker-funded, often mandatory, food handling training program — and the association’s lobbying operations after a New York Times report revealed the former helped to fund the latter. The lobby’s “underhanded and unscrupulous weaponization of the ServSafe program…deserves further scrutiny,” the senators write. “You owe workers an answer as to why you are secretly using their funds to lobby against their interests.”

“The National Restaurant Association’s behavior is shameful — taking workers’ own money and using it to lobby against their interests behind their backs,” Warren says about the effort. “It’s time for the Association to give answers to the essential workers who keep the food and restaurant industry going.”

Among the demands: the amount of revenue the ServSafe program brought into the association, how much of revenue was funneled into lobbying efforts, and whether workers had been notified of how the funds would be used. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Wash.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) have signed onto Warren’s effort — as has Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the new chair of the Senate’s labor committee. “If workers are effectively being forced to pay the bill for lobbying against their own interests — suppressing higher wages and benefits like paid sick days — it’s disturbing and outrageous,” Merkley adds.

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Their demands come on the heels of a New York Times investigation that established a long-suspected link between ServSafe and the association’s lobbying program. The National Restaurant Association owns and operates ServSafe, which charges food service employees roughly $15 to complete its food safety training. The training is mandated in several states and required by employers in others; employees often must retake the course every three years. Alternatives to ServSafe exist, but it’s the “dominant force in the market,” the Times found, dominating as much as 70 percent of the market, according to one estimate.

That is “particularly outrageous,” the senators write, because food-service workers — roughly 40 percent of whom qualify as low-income — are “not adequately informed of how their payments are used.” That’s because those payments, the Times revealed, double as fundraising for the nation’s most powerful food service lobby. The program has provided roughly $25 million in revenue to the National Restaurant Association’s lobbying arm since 2010. That lobbying arm has spearheaded efforts at the state and federal level to quash legislation for employer-mandated health care and others that would codify workers’ rights to organize and form a union. It has also defeated attempts to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and eliminate the sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour for tipped workers. 

Critics of the lobby call the National Restaurant Association “the other NRA,” a nod to the notorious reputation of the National Rifle Association. While the group has recruited lawmakers of both parties to champion its agenda, its efforts have largely found common cause with conservative legislators and think tanks. Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and 2016 GOP presidential candidate, strengthened the lobby’s hand as its president in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He oversaw successful campaigns against federal bans on indoor smoking and lowering the legal blood alcohol limit for drunk driving, arguing both would harm restaurants’ and bars’ bottom lines.

Its agenda has not only targeted workers. The lobby has even teamed up with the gas industry to push back against proposed natural gas bans at the local and state level. The National Restaurant Association has asserted that gas-powered appliances produce “nominal emissions” and pose “little to no effect on climate change at all” — an assertion that elides environmental risks the underlying infrastructure poses. Eliminating restaurants’ gas stoves and ovens, meanwhile, would create “another hurdle that our small business owners cannot afford,” as the California Restaurant Association said in response to one such ban in Berkeley, California.

But when COVID-19 hit U.S. shores, those small business owners were left to fend for themselves. The National Restaurant Association secured a carveout in the Paycheck Protection Program that allowed chains to qualify for the $349 billion Congress had earmarked for small businesses. Big brands like T.G.I.Friday’s and P.F. Chang’s gobbled up $10 million loans each while thousands of mom-and-pop shops received nothing. Federal lawmakers tried to remedy the shortfall with a restaurant-specific grant program, but the National Restaurant Association withheld its support until larger franchises could qualify, as well.

All the while, the lobby refuted scientific research that showed restaurants were “by far the riskiest places” for the spread of the virus — diners in close proximity, over prolonged stretches of time, undertaking the necessarily open-mouthed act of eating and drinking. The National Restaurant Association’s state affiliates fought local ordinances that banned in-person dining during the pandemic’s deadliest months.

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The National Restaurant Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment. “The association’s advocacy work keeps restaurants open; it keeps workers employed, it finds pathways for worker opportunity, and it keeps our communities healthy,” National Restaurant Association president Michelle Korsmo said in a statement to the Times in response to its reporting.

With the House under GOP control, the Democrat-controlled Senate has signaled an intention to beef up its own oversight agenda — especially over corporate interests. The letter Warren and her colleagues have written to the National Restaurant Association is one example. The association does not have to comply with the demands, however, since it lacks the legal teeth of a subpoena. What the senators are engaged in, then, is a campaign of public scrutiny — one they hope will bring the answers they seek to light.

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