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The fight to end a little-known legacy of slavery is at a tipping point

Portland, Maine fair wage vote offers a snapshot into national push to relieve workers’ reliance on tips to make ends meet

A restaurant worker participates in a wage strike demonstration organized by One Fair Wage outside of the Old Ebbitt Grill restaurant on May 26, 2021 in Washington, D.C.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sometimes, big waves come from small places, just not in the way the workers in a New England town ever imagined. On Tuesday, voters in Portland, Maine, have an opportunity to make history at the ballot box.

A community-initiated referendum seeks to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers. This practice is a racist and sexist legacy of slavery, created after Emancipation so Southern employers could avoid paying formerly enslaved workers, particularly Black women, wages for jobs such as waitressing.

The Portland measure would end the unfair practice of forcing workers to reach the minimum wage through tips. If passed, a minimum wage of $18 an hour, with tips on top, would be phased in over several years. Just to underscore: Workers could still take tips but wouldn’t need to rely on the kindness of strangers to cover their bills. The new law would also provide a just wage for all workers, including those with disabilities, youth, and gig workers.

Though it’s not in the national headlines at the moment, the politics of minimum wage in America has shifted dramatically. Minimum-wage ballot measures have galvanized voters for several election cycles now, especially those less likely to turn out otherwise. That makes sense after decades of poverty-level wage floors and growing economic inequality. Public opinion research shows the one fair wage proposal — a fair minimum for all workers, with tips on top rather than replacing that wage floor — is enormously popular across party lines, and not just in liberal-leaning cities or states.

Take Florida, where voters in the 2020 election approved such an increase by a margin 18 points larger than Donald Trump’s victory there. Florida became the first state in the South to approve a phased-in, multiyear hike to one fair wage of $15 an hour.

With the pandemic shock compounded by sharp inflation, these measures have become even more popular, and essential, for workers. The same is true for their employers. Over one million restaurant workers have left the restaurant industry since the pandemic began. Of those who remained last year, 54% told surveyors they plan to leave, and 80% said the only thing that would make them stay or return is a full, livable wage with tips on top. Portland’s survey numbers are comparable.

Customers dine on the sidewalk outside Portland Pie in Brunswick, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

For the first time since Emancipation, millions of workers are decisively rejecting subminimum wages. When the cost of a gallon of gas matches your hourly wage, you’re not going back to work.

Across the country, as the economic recovery continues, businesses large and small, in historically low-wage industries, are at last paying higher-than-poverty wages to attract and retain workers as customers come back. For example, One Fair Wage, a nonprofit advocacy organization, identified nearly 5,000 restaurants across the country voluntarily providing $15 an hour, and in some cases more, with tips on top.

This industry upheaval has dramatically reduced public opposition from a powerful, longtime opponent: the National Restaurant Association. Dominated by corporate chain restaurants, “the other NRA” has been lobbying for a century now to maintain a subminimum wage. Yet Michigan just became the latest state to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers, and Washington, D.C., and Portland, Maine, are poised to follow, with dozens more states on track to do the same. Broad public support does not guarantee change, though: Massachusetts, for example, has had a pending bill for six years, and the local restaurant lobby remains opposed. Higher wages in Maine could soon force that to change.

These wage reforms matter for workers of all backgrounds, but they’re doubly important for women and workers of color. It’s no accident the Biden campaign adopted one fair wage as a key element on both the racial justice and gender justice platforms in 2020.

Nationwide, tipped workers paid the subminimum wage are more than two-thirds women, and disproportionately women of color, who mostly work in casual restaurants and struggle with double the poverty rates of other workers. They also face the highest levels of sexual harassment of any industry because they must tolerate inappropriate behavior to earn their income in tips. Nearly four out of five states have a subminimum wage of $5 an hour or less. It’s why many workers laid off from tip-reliant jobs during the pandemic earned too little to even qualify for unemployment insurance, as labor researchers found in 2020.

Beyond the moral case, there’s a business and economic case for raising the floor and paying one fair wage to all. Paying more to those earning poverty-level take-home pay boosts spending at local businesses and significantly improves worker productivity and retention, reducing the costs of constantly hiring and training new workers. There’s also evidence it improves health and mental health for workers and their children.

What’s truly historic about what Portland voters can do this November: overcome our generations-long habit of excluding some workers to help others, effectively pitting one group of vulnerable workers against others when we make labor reforms.

Voters in Portland can show the country what it means to leave no one behind — to bring everyone into a modern, fair economy for all workers — and bring an end to one of slavery’s meanest and most lasting legacies.

Xavier de Souza Briggs is a senior fellow at Brookings Metro and part of its Valuing Black Assets Initiative; he is a board member of One Fair Wage, a nonprofit advocacy group. Saru Jayaraman is the organization’s executive director and the author of the books “Forked” and “One Fair Wage.” She also directs the Food Labor Research Center and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.