Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Social Darwinist Dead Enders

I don’t like to talk about politics on my blog. When you’re a waiter you don’t alienate customers (and reduce your tips) by saying you like or dislike any particular political party. My bistro is a bi-partisan affair. The only political figures we like to talk about are the dead ones with their faces on the money.

However, a reader sent me a disturbing bit off news about legislation being proposed in the Senate that could have a direct impact on anyone who works for tips. But first some background……

The State of New York requires restaurant employers to pay wait staff $3.85 per hour. The Federal minimum for tipped workers is $2.12 per hour. New York State’s minimum for tipped workers is higher than the Federal standard. Under current Federal labor law employers have to pay the state minimum if it’s higher than the Federal. But, whatever the standard, the idea is that the combination of $3.85 or $2.12 per hour plus tips will raise my wages to the Federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. With me so far?

I make $3.85 per hour PLUS tips. Most waiters take home more than $5.15 per hour. Tips make up the vast bulk of our compensation. No one could live on $3.85 an hour. Come to think of it very few people can live on $5.15 per hour. A person making Federal minimum wage makes $10,700 per year. That’s $5000 below the poverty line if you have a family of three. Hey, even if it’s for one person it sucks. You can’t live in a major metropolitan area like New York on that kind of pay unless you give up some of life’s little pleasures – like eating.

The legislation in the Senate, proposed by Senator Rick Santorum R-PA, would allow, “small and even medium size restaurants and other businesses with tipped employees (to) be exempt from the Federal minimum wage, and state governments would be barred from requiring employers to pay actual wages to tipped workers. Essentially, those workers could be hired for zero dollars and told they had to live only off tips, however little those were." This proposal is being considered in a legislative package to raise the Federal minimum wage. You can read more about it here and here.

Mr. Santorum seems to be saying waiters should no longer get their “waiter pay” of $3.85 per hour or whatever it is in any particular state.

My “waiter pay” adds up to about $150 for a forty hour work week. Most of that money goes to pay the taxes on the tips I earn. If Santorum’s proposal becomes law I might lose my $150 per week. That’s a loss of $600 per month. Quite a chunk of change. If I lost that money I would no longer be able to afford the $400 a month I pay for health insurance. If I’m uninsured and I get sick who pays for my treatment? After I’m hounded into bankruptcy – you, the taxpayer, will. Health insurance is what keeps me in the middle class. If I lose it poverty is fairly inevitable. We all get sick.

I know some of you Ayn Rand dead-enders out there are saying, “Oh poor baby, get another job and make more money.” Well there are about 2-3 million wait staff in restaurants, diners, and truckstops all over this great land of ours. I don’t think we can all get new jobs en masse. Also support staffs that depend on tips: bus people, porters, coat check girls, valets, and bathroom attendants would be drastically affected by Santorum’s proposal. They make much less in tips than waiters do. Most struggle to stay above the poverty line. Not all of them make it. Santorum’s proposal is like kicking them in the balls.

(I am not an economist or political junkie. If any of my facts are in error I welcome corrections. I understand Santorum’s proposal in part of a larger legislative package – I’m just focusing on what's affecting my brethren.)

What really irks me is not the legislation being proposed but the ideology and sentiment behind it.

Why, when Congress, or corporations for that matter, wants to cut costs and trim budgets do they target the weakest members of society? Why stick it to waiters and buspeople? Why take away the little they have? In the larger scheme - why cut drug treatment programs, after school programs, school lunches, and meals on wheels? Why do corporations slash health and retiree benefits, lobby to lift workplace safety regulations, and lay off tens of thousands of workers? Why do they do this but cynically increase the level of their own compensation at the same time? Congress last voted on increasing the minimum wage in 1997 but between 1997 and 2004 they voted to increase their salaries seven times by a total of $28,500. That increase is more than many American’s make in a year. CEO compensation? Its hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times higher than what their employees take home. Why? Here’s my take on the situation.

We live in a country where the phrase “survival of the fittest” threatens to replace “E Pluribus Unum” on the coinage. Every day we’re bombarded by media images telling us what we need to be happy. To achieve happiness we must be: thin, beautiful, young, rich, in shape, popular, wear tasteful clothes, own every gadget imaginable, have fantastic sex three times a day (well, I like that one) and consume products and resources like there’s no tomorrow. Poor? Overweight? Make less than $200,000 a year? Fuck you. You’re a loser and just using up my oxygen. Get out of the way so I can make more money you pathetic drag on society. Ever get the sneaking suspicion you’re not measuring up to some impossibly high ideal? Don’t believe me? Turn on the TV.

This message has taken deep root in our society. It plays out in our politics and our economic policies. Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame. We as a people are to blame. We permit this ideal to run our lives. We pass it on to our children. Now, I’m not saying hard work, entrepanuership, and enjoying the fruits of your labors is bad. Far from it. There just has be enough fruit for everybody. The gap between rich and poor is growing. We are, as Warren Buffet alluded to a few days ago, turning into a “sharecropper society.” He was talking about foreign debt. I’m talking about a cadre of wealthy people, through politics, economics, and media, trying to make us all good little worker bees and pumping our minds full of the social darwinistic spirituality.

This has all happened before. During the “Gilded Age” at the turn of the last century, robber barons accumulated great wealth while riding roughshod over the American worker. Then, as now, they controlled Capitol Hill and the Fourth Estate. In response to flagrant dehumanizing abuses, the Federal Government established safeguards to protect the common man. You know – child labor laws, the FDA, Social Security, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and protection of unions. Little things like that.

I think we are entering another “Gilded Age.” I hope we have what it takes as a nation to get through it.

The ultimate test of a society is not wealth and power but how it treats its weakest members. No chain is stronger than its weakest link. We’ve lost sight of that fact.

You may snort and dismiss that idea as bullshit. That’s your right. But let me assure you, at one time in your life, whether through illness, age, or economics – you’re going to be that weak link. I guarantee it.

Who will be there to take care of you?

The desire to cut pay from waiters and other tipped workers is only a symptom of a larger and pervasive cancer running through society- that survival of the fittest trumps all.

That’s my opinion. Sorry for rambling on. I’m sure readers will shred this post to pieces.

If you agree with me, write your local representative and tell him or her to protect tipped workers’ basic minimum wage.

I’ll be back with more entertaining stories. I know you all come here for the laughs but every once I while I just gotta say what’s on my mind.

The blog is called Waiter RANT after all.

Comments:
What you have described is the great ennui that is capitalism. America was never meant to be that which is taught in public school. When you ask the questions, follow with looking for the answers. Who writes and teaches our history? The same segment of the population that has always written the collective story and norms for each society. When the exploited finally decide to critically examine the nature of existence as practiced by the sheep and hearder down through, the actual allocation of power within our society may have something to fear.
 
As a Canadian looking onto America I see what you see Waiter. I see a bloated nation in every sense of the word. I, too, don't want to get too wordy but I do think a social safety net is a good idea. I hope the collective can affect a change without a massive upheaval. Yes, please do write your state representative. The only way the government will ever listen to the people is if they speak to them. After all, governments are there for the people, aren't they? Good for you for pointing out this basic fact.
 
I fully understand what you are saying and agree. The problem is everyone says that this (the have and have not societal structure and the idiotic fears that marketing steeps into our brains, and that we let this brainwashing occur) but no one ever does anything about it...Self-actualization to write to a state rep is hard to come by with the bystander mentality in our society.
 
Not quite as intellectual as the other comments, but I couldn't help dropping this URL in, for those who are unaware of Santorum's "other meaning": http://www.thestranger.com/2003-06-12/savage.html.
 
I have said for years that once the 98% of the people in this country, who live day to day, get tired of the 2% of the population that control everything, then there will be a revolution. We out number them, it is just a matter of deciding we want to change things. Stop letting big business and special interest decide everything in this country.
 
What you're missing is that increasing the minimum wage doesn't help people earning near that wage - it does more harm than good to people on or near the margin. When you legally fix /one/ term of a contract, that doesn't really benefit either party, it just means the other terms will change. Make a job better in terms of wages, and if the job doesn't disappear entirely (which it sometimes does) it is likely to get worse in some other way - less flexible hours, more difficult work, less training, less advancement opportunity, fewer breaks, that sort of thing. Most "pro-worker" legislation actually hurts workers.

There's a brief relevant comment referencing your post
here.
 
I love it when people say "If you don't like your minimum wage job, get another one." First off, like that's easy in this economy. Secondly, if everybody gets out of the service industry who will wait on them and bring them their food and drinks when they want to go out to eat?
 
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