A Story of Advocacy By George Gundrey
Owner, Tomasita’s Santa Fe, Tomasita’s Albuquerque, and the Atrisco Café & Bar, Santa Fe
In 2019 the stars aligned to get me involved with advocacy in the political realm in defense of the restaurant industry. I am so glad I did. As most of you know, the minimum wage legislation being proposed eliminated the tip credit, and would have required restaurant owners to pay their tipped employees the full minimum wage out of our pockets. This would have been a major blow to our industry, and to our employees.
For me personally, eliminating the tip credit was beyond stupid. In Santa Fe, we had recently had a soda tax ballot initiative and a plastic straw ban discussion. We already have one of the highest minimum wages in the nation. While all of these proposals don’t help anyone, and take my focus away from giving the customer the best food and service I can, I did not see them as an existential threat to my business model. The tip credit was different. It had to be stopped, and I had to get involved. The New Mexico Restaurant Association (NMRA) made it all possible. Without the NMRA I would not have known where to start, and I do not believe we could have organized in time to stop this legislation.
The NMRA has a great lobbyist in Allison Smith, statewide relationships with restaurant owners, and the resources to hire a contractor (Daniel Trujillo) for more organizational and lobbying muscle. The years of experience and relationships of NMRA Director Carol Wight were also invaluable. We immediately determined (again with guidance form our lobbyist) that getting the legislators to hear from our employees was critical. I knew I had to be careful. I was very emotional about the topic, and know I can be loud and pushy at times. I did not want my employees to feel pressured into participating. So I decided to lay out the entire case to my employee in writing. I was very careful to be factual, and to present the other side’s perspective fairly. I gave them the actual numbers of what it would cost the business. I was sure to let my employees know I wanted their help, but that it was OK if they did not participate or if they advocated the other side. I also had my letter translated to Spanish. English is the second language of many of my servers, and wanted to make sure they understood every word I was writing.
The NMRA knows the legislative process intimately. They know what committee meetings we needed to be at, who the important people were to talk to, and how to approach them all.
My staff turned up in force! It was really amazing. One of the most satisfying experiences was taking some of my young, immigrant waitresses to the legislature. None of them had ever done anything like this. Most did not even know how the process worked at all. Most legislators listened politely, and many asked questions. However, one legislature started lecturing them about how she, as a single mother, had waited tables. She was pushing the legislation for their best interest. (As if she knew better as to what their best interest is!) They were having none it. They politely but firmly explained their experience and their desires. They explained how they have worked different jobs in different industries, and that working as a server or bartender worked best for them as single mothers themselves. When we left the legislature the sense of pride and empowerment these ladies felt was palpable. They were pumped up! In additional, because of our success, two of my servers were invited to go to Washington DC (expenses paid) and lobby at the federal level with Employment Policy Institute. Talk about giving your employees opportunities!
Another benefit from doing this work (one of many silver linings) is that I got to meet and develop relationships with many of my restaurant owner colleagues, including those from Albuquerque and other places outside of Santa Fe. We are a great group of men and women that now share a bond.
As you know, the legislation was amended and the tip credit was preserved. We have since heard that some of the legislators are “afraid of us” now. Most important, I can go back to worrying about making a better enchilada.
There are a few other lessons I learned that I want to share.
1) THANK GOD for the NMRA. Honestly, I was not always sure my membership in the NMRA was worth it. This was mostly due to me not taking advantage of all it has to offer. However, even if I never take another class or attend another NMRA event, I will always happily contribute just for the legislative work.
2) We need to pick our battles carefully. I believe the minimum wage is not only bad for businesses, but for the long-term interests of many workers and potential workers. I truly believe that minimum wage laws are net-negative for the people they are intended to help. However, that is a long-term education project. And many restaurant owners do not even agree with me. My choosing to accept an increase in the minimum wage and focus on saving the tip credit, we were able to be successful.
3) There is a need for a pro-business immigrant rights organizing force in New Mexico. Some of the highest profile advocates of eliminating the tip credit were immigrant rights groups. Members of these groups were claiming tipping is both sexist and the legacy of slavery. Yet these groups are also providing important legal and other services the immigrant community. Perhaps the NMRA can play a role in this.
4) Finally, we do need to be more proactive and preventative at the state and local level. We need to develop relationships with our city councilors, county commissioners, and mayors before they start proposing other stupid legislation. We need to know them better before they are on the wrong side of an issue. That way they will see us as the good people we are that truly care about our employees and the greater community.