The fight over Initiative 77 in the District reminds me of my time at the store. Small businesses insisting they can’t pay their workers more, owners cultivating the “family” ethos, and employees tying their worth and identity to the operators’ ideology. When I say ideology, I mean a powerful system of meaning that presents itself as common sense. Ideology often coerces subtly, such as when restaurant owners or managers post “No on 77” signs in their restaurants and tell patrons to ask staff about 77. When you’re the employer, even mentioning your position on the initiative to employees is a kind of subtle coercion because you possess the power to schedule or take away (good) shifts, because you can fire and hire people and because perhaps your employees think of your business as a (paternalistic) “family.”
It was this kind of conversation that made me research this initiative. A restaurant where I was dining displayed a “No on 77” sign, so I asked our server what it meant. He told me that the initiative would take away tips, which would lead to bad wages and bad service. I asked him how he knew that would happen, and he demurred, saying something about common sense. As a scholar of economic rhetoric, I decided to investigate the matter thoroughly and to open myself up to the possibility that a yes vote would harm tipped workers.
My thorough research has led me to vote yes on Initiative 77.
Conducting this research made me realize that the debate over 77 cannot be separated from gentrification in the District. Experientially, the places I have seen sporting “No on 77” signs in their windows are in neighborhoods that either are wealthy already or have been rapidly gentrifying, and the establishments have tended to be restaurants and bars that are not particularly accessible to the lower-income, longtime residents who are increasingly displaced. This observation makes sense because, as John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch and Marc Lamont Hill argued, consumption — particularly the search for “authentic” and special food and drinks — is at the heart of what it means to be a gentrifier.
People opposing 77 have suggested that higher wages deter investment and that restaurants will close. For example, D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) announced his opposition to 77, saying, “I fear that Initiative 77 will scare off the very businesses we are trying to attract.” This statement made me wonder why the city is so dependent on businesses that resist paying their wait staff the minimum wage. I wondered, why is it an unassailable good to court expensive restaurants? Initiative 77 offers us the opportunity to ask ourselves whether we want more restaurants whose operators will not pay their employees the minimum wage.
In 2017, many operators were voicing concerns that the restaurants at the Wharf would exacerbate a “restaurant staffing crisis.” Is it possible that we have too many (unaffordable) restaurants? And are those restaurants serving their communities, or are they exacerbating the District’s displacement problem?
Initiative 77 invites us to consider what kind of city we want to live in: one that endlessly courts upscale businesses that contribute to displacement or one that demands that employers pay their employees at least the legal minimum wage. Voting yes gives the District the chance to be a visionary and equitable city.