By Lauren Gamble (Barista and Shift Lead)
This November, there was a minimum wage referendum on the ballot in Portland, Maine. It quickly became a contentious issue. The referendum, drafted by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), seeks to both raise Portland’s minimum wage to $18 per hour and end the tipped wage by 2025.
Currently the minimum wage in Portland is $13 an hour, and the tipped minimum wage is $6.50 if you make at least $100 in tips per month. This referendum would bump the minimum wage up to $15 in 2023, $16.50 in 2024 and then $18 in 2025. The subminimum wage, or tipped wage, would increase to $10 an hour in 2023, $14 in 2024, and then $18 in 2025, while also eliminating the tipped wage rule entirely. Portland workers desperately need a wage increase.
Business owners heavily oppose the referendum, even though it would improve the lives of Portland workers. A lobbyist group, calling themself “Enough is Enough,” purchased ads against the referendum and emboldened business owners to speak against it.
In a video posted by Enough is Enough that had since been taken down, Mary Allen Lindemann, co-founder of local coffee chain Coffee by Design, said she is worried that her 28-year business that survived the AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and the COVID-19 pandemic would not make it to 30 years if Question D passes. It is frankly offensive to evoke tragedies to gain sympathy and try to justify underpaying employees. She is effectively admitting that her business has survived because she is undervaluing workers and exploiting their labor. With unionization efforts sweeping coffee shops from corporate places like Starbucks to more local shops like Pavements in Boston, MA or the Little Dog Coffee House in Brunswick, ME, coffee workers are realizing that we deserve better.
Enough is Enough opposes every question that would help workers on the Portland ballot, including Question B, which would restrict short term rentals to owner occupied rentals, meaning that the owner is required to live in the same building as the property they are renting out. This would free up housing that is rented on sites like Airbnb. DSA says this would open up 340 units for renters. And Question C strengthens tenant’s rights by enforcing a 90-day notice to tenants for lease termination and rent increases.
Housing is a huge issue in Portland as it is in most cities. These questions would help workers in Portland who rent by making more housing available and by protecting renter’s rights. Enough is Enough and their donors make it clear they do not care about the workers living and working in Portland. This lobby group has raised at least $430,000 compared to the $10,000 DSA raised for their Livable Portland campaign.
A common argument against getting rid of the tipped wage claims that workers who are making great money in tips will make less overall. In practice, workers in states that eliminated tipped wages, like California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota, and Alaska are less likely to live in poverty.
Another argument against getting rid of the tipped wage is that no one will tip anymore. This is also not the case in those states. Customers still tip, but instead of being a majority of what the worker has to live on, it will be a bonus on top of a stable wage.
Tipping originated as, and continues to be, an institution for employers to pay their workers less. It is also a racist institution that we should leave in the past. Though the origins of tipping predate capitalism as we know it, it became popular in the Southern U.S. after slavery ended.
Employers encouraged tipping so they would not have to pay newly freed Black Americans equally. Today, the burden of tipped wages still falls disproportionately on working-class people of color and women, continuing to economically marginalize them. We must vote to end the tipped wage and encourage anywhere still using the tipped wage to replace it with a steady guaranteed wage.
The minimum wage issue and the housing issues demonstrate the need for a workers’ party and strong unions. As Portland workers saw with the hazard pay initiative, which sought to increase wages for Portland workers to time-and-a-half during the Covid-19 pandemic, any reform that will help working people is met with opposition by the capitalists, business owners, and their politicians in power. Portland voters passed hazard pay and yet the Chamber of Commerce used their collective funds to sue and bully the city until it backed out of the measure entirely.
This year’s progressive ballot questions are not going to be an easy win. We must, as workers, demand better and unionize our workplaces if not already unionized, as part of the fight for better wages—especially those working in the restaurant and coffee industry.
Unions are certainly gaining momentum locally, with the Middle Street location of Starbucks voting to unionize. Hopefully there will be many more to come. We also need to begin organizing for a strong workers’ party to raise the federal minimum wage and eliminate the federal tipped minimum wage. No one can survive on $2.13 per hour with or without tips, and they also cannot survive on $7.25. Pay raises linked to productivity would mean the minimum wage should be raised to $21.50 and then the minimum wage needs to be increased annually to keep up with inflation. Question D is a step in the right direction, which is why I support it and will be voting for it. And as workers, we should advocate for a national minimum wage increase to at least $20 an hour as a step toward a living wage for all workers.
At the time of publication, the results of the ballot questions show only Question C on tenant protections passed.