D.C. Labor Battle Turns Into a Civil Rights Fight

Tipped workers and their advocates fought long and hard to get Initiative 77 onto the Washington, D.C. primary ballot in June. The proposition, which won with double-digit margins, demands establishments pay their tipped workers the full minimum wage, as opposed to the paltry $3.89 base pay for tipped workers.

But if the D.C. government gets its way, the victory will be short-lived. Seven city council members introduced a bill last week to overturn the proposition, thanks to a well-funded campaign from the restaurant industry that continues on despite defeat at the ballot.

The move has outraged voters. After all, the initiative won with a healthy margin. Only Ward 3 — the whitest ward in the district, and the one with the highest median income — voted against the measure. Compare that to the predominantly Black Wards 7 and 8, where the initiative won with its highest levels of support.

But despite its popularity, the council members of five of the city’s eight wards — all of which voted in favor of Initiative 77 — joined DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson and Councilmember-At-Large Anita Bonds to introduce a bill to suppress the voice of voters and maintain the subminimum tipped wage.

D.C. residents already know something about having their will ignored. District license plates read “Taxation Without Representation” — a reference to the lack of a D.C. vote in Congress. The district’s laws and spending are already subject to congressional authority, which means the city’s governance often turns into a bargaining chip during national debates.

City council members have decried the ability of Congress to interfere in how the city is run. Mendelson even called it “antithetical to democratic principles.” So why don’t they see their actions as belonging to that same anti-democratic tradition?

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