When Joe Manchin told attendees at the National Restaurant Association (NRA)’s national conference on Tuesday that the minimum wage shouldn’t be more than $11 and there should still be a subminimum wage for tipped workers, the group’s chief lobbyist couldn’t contain his excitement.
“From your lips to God’s ears,” exclaimed Sean Kennedy, the NRA’s executive vice president of public affairs, who spoke with the Democratic senator from West Virginia as part of a virtual panel titled, “Seeking Unity: Conversations on Finding Bipartisan Solutions.”
The NRA is a powerful, sprawling lobbying operation, with $289 million in revenue in 2018 and state affiliates around the country. The organization has been leading the charge to block a federal $15 minimum wage and is also fighting a separate Democratic effort to make it easier for workers to form unions.
Manchin, along with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, were added to the NRA conference lineup after they joined six other Democrats in blocking an attempt by Sen. Bernie Sanders to add a $15 minimum wage provision to the Democrats’ COVID-19 relief legislation in March.
Both lawmakers have also spoken out against efforts to reform the filibuster — a stand that will keep a lid on many key Democratic legislative priorities — and they have recently enjoyed cash infusions from business interests that would be affected by the party’s proposals.
Manchin’s and Sinema’s statements at the conference, reportedly attended by several hundred restaurant operators from around the country, pull back the curtain on what they say to corporate interests when they’re out of the public eye. The NRA event, billed as “off-the-record” and “closed to press,” was the association’s annual “public affairs conference,” which means it was designed for lobbyists and focused on shaping legislation.
“It Might Be the Way to Go, Bernie, But It Ain’t Gonna Go”
During Sinema’s talk, Kennedy praised the senator as a “true moderate.” She responded: “My approach has always remained the same. I promised Arizonans that I would do things differently than some in Washington and that I would be an independent voice for our state, not for any political party.”
Sinema said she believes that “achieving lasting results on the issues that matter to everyday Americans really requires bipartisan solutions,” and she called on her “colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join me in my approach.”
In truth, however, Sinema’s political approach and viewpoint on the minimum wage have shifted considerably since she first got into politics. She was at one time considered a progressive.
During his talk, Manchin specifically took aim at Sanders for continuing to push for a $15 minimum wage.
“We’ve been having meetings on minimum wage, and I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t take a win on $11,” he said. “Bernie Sanders is totally committed in his heart and soul that $15 is the way to go. Well, it might be the way to go, Bernie, but it ain’t gonna go. You don’t have the votes for it. It’s not going to happen. So they’re going to walk away with their pride, saying we fought for $15, got nothing.”
Manchin said there are other Democrats who agree with him that “the path they’re going down is wrong.”
He added that he doesn’t think the minimum wage should be increased to more than $11, and he said there should still be a lower subminimum wage for workers who rely on tips.
“If it comes down to one person, I don’t believe it should be above $11. I don’t think the tipped wage should ever go above half of that,” Manchin said. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, and the subminimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13. West Virginia has an $8.75 minimum wage, with a $2.62 tipped wage.
In response, Kennedy gushed to Manchin: “You and your staff have been absolutely amazing in working with small businesses, including the National Restaurant Association, in finding a commonsense path, so we can wrap up that aspect by just saying thank you.”
Kennedy, who previously served in the Obama White House as a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, has become the public face of corporate opposition to a $15 minimum wage.
“The Raise the Wage Act imposes an impossible challenge for the restaurant industry,” Kennedy noted in a statement earlier this year. “A nationwide increase in the minimum wage will create insurmountable costs for many operators in states.”
Kennedy’s talking points contrast with statements made by executives from several of the NRA’s biggest member restaurants, including Denny’s, Domino’s, and the Cheesecake Factory, who have indicated to investors that increasing the minimum wage wouldn’t be an overwhelming burden.
In January, for example, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski told investors: “Our view is the minimum wage is most likely going to be increasing, whether that’s federally or at the state level as I referenced. And so long as it’s done . . . in a staged way and in a way that is equitable for everybody, McDonald’s will do just fine through that.”
“We Will Not Be the Country We Are”
During his talk on Tuesday, Manchin reiterated his opposition to eliminating the legislative filibuster, which currently allows Republicans to block most legislation, outside of spending bills, unless Democrats can find sixty votes. The Senate is currently split fifty-fifty, and Democrats only have a fifty-one-vote majority with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break ties.
“You get rid of the filibuster, and we will not be the country we are for this reason: you’ll have the violent swings, extreme swings, every time there’s an election, whichever party is in power,” he said. “It’ll be no different than a lot of European countries are, no different than a lot of developing countries. It’s whoever’s in power, and basically it swings. Everything’s thrown out and started over. We have been a country and we have grown as a country with a consistency that people could depend on.”
Labor activists were thrilled when Manchin on Monday said he would cosponsor Democrats’ landmark labor reform legislation, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act — meaning there are now only three Democrats who have not signed onto the bill. Sinema is one of the holdouts.
But Manchin’s position on the filibuster makes it unlikely the PRO Act will advance at all, as there is basically no chance that ten Republicans will support the legislation.
While Sinema didn’t speak about the filibuster specifically, she said, “What I’m telling my colleagues is that we cannot accept a new standard by which important legislation only passes on party-line votes. If we were to accept that, it would set the stage for permanent partisan dysfunction, it would deepen the divisions that exist within our country, and it would further erode Americans’ confidence in their government, which we know is a challenge we face already.”
When Kennedy asked Sinema what restaurant operators should know about communicating with lawmakers, she replied that “Senators need to hear from their constituents. . . . They may have a public position on an issue, but it’s also that person’s job to represent his or her constituents.”
A March poll of Sinema’s constituents found that 52 percent of independents in Arizona and 72 percent of Democrats support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Arizona’s minimum wage is currently $12.15, with a tipped wage of $9.15.
The same poll found that only 50 percent of Democrats viewed her favorably, down from 65 percent in January. The change came after Sinema attracted national attention for the overly performative way she flashed a thumbs-down on the Senate floor to spike the $15 minimum wage provision that would have boosted the paychecks of 839,000 workers in her state.
During the NRA conference, Sinema, who recently posted a photo of herself on Instagram wearing a ring that read, “Fuck Off,” said it’s important to treat people with respect.
As she advised lobbyists in attendance, “You always want to be polite.”