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Labor & Economy

The Persuaders: California Restaurant Association

Bobbi Murray

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“Something always seems to be starting in California,” Angelo Amador, an attorney and vice president for the National Restaurant Association, told Bloomberg News.

It was 2012 and his remark was prompted by a California state Supreme Court decision favoring an employee’s right to have defined meal-break times. The association—dubbed “the other NRA” for its lobbying muscle, with annual revenues of $71 million in 2013–had vigorously opposed policy that required employers to ensure that workers take rest and meal breaks rather than leaving it to the  employees to push back against managers to enforce break provisions.

Amador’s NRA is perhaps the largest trade group that you have never heard of, and supports an “institute” run by a PR firm that churns out opinions and papers to shape policy debates.

Also read these stories in our “Persuaders” series about corporate lobbying:

Bill Raden on the California Hospital Association
Judith Lewis Mernit on the Western States Petroleum Association


NRA brand-name backers include Disney, McDonald’s and YUM! Brands, which owns KFC and Taco Bell. The NRA’s local offspring, the California Restaurant Association (CRA), is one of 53 NRA state affiliates that fight behind the scenes to oppose policies that raise wages, protect break times and paid sick days. Like its parent organization, the CRA fronts as a representative of the restaurant industry’s mom-and-pops, even though nationally half of all restaurants are chain and franchise operations.

Amador was right about California in more ways than he knew. For decades his group has been a major force in holding the federal minimum wage for tipped workers to $2.13 an hour – but California is one of seven states not tied to that below-poverty-line level. Here, waitresses, bartenders, bellhops and other service employees  must be paid at least the state’s $9 statewide minimum wage. And, thanks to local ordinances enacted in Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, San Jose and Sunnyvale, workers in those cities receive more than the state  minimum wage.

 

“It’s one of the lobbies that we run up against most often,” said Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation, adding that the CRA often teams up with the California Chamber of Commerce to declare wage bills “job killers.” When the Los Angeles City Council voted in May to gradually raise the city minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, the California Restaurant Association was in the front row opposing it as “extreme.”

And, last February, state Assembly member Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) introduced Assembly Bill 669, a CRA-backed measure that would have gutted the pay boost for California tipped workers next year, when the state minimum wage rises to $10 an hour. Hidden in the bill was also language to undo the local California city wage ordinances that have been approved by voters or local governments over the past few years. AB 669 got sidelined in committee and expired “due largely to the opposition of organized labor,” according to a CRA news release that adds Daly remains committed to the policy of keeping tipped workers to a $9 hourly wage in 2016.

Daly is not a CRA employee but an elected representative who has served as Mayor of Anaheim—the Orange County city that is home to the Disneyland Resort, a complex of theme parks hotels and restaurants that helped boost the Disney corporation’s profits by 32 percent last year and added to NRA-member Disney’s 2014 gross income of $20 billion. Mindful of Daly’s use to it, CRA’s political action committee threw the Assemblyman a re-election fundraising party in 2014 — at Disneyland.

In response to a query from Capital & Main about its position on wages, the CRA sent an email stating that the California Restaurant Association’s strives  to “balance gradual minimum wage increases with cost mitigating policies such as total compensation”and  to “include mitigations that allow small businesses to gradually incorporate increased costs.”

Nevertheless, the CRA’s agenda takes aim at the NRA’s longtime policy targets, vigorously opposing anti-smoking measures despite studies that show they don’t harm restaurant business economics. The CRA fought the restaurant smoking ban that ultimately prevailed — and only signaled support as long as smoking was barred in all public places. The restaurant association has also been a staunch opponent of anti-obesity measures—many of which have passed in California cities.

California has held the line against the CRA’s policy agenda. Daly’s bill to overturn local minimum wage ordinances and ban tipped workers from receiving the next statewide wage hike died on the vine. A bill jointly authored by Senators Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Connie Leyva (D-Chino) to gradually raise the state minimum wage passed the state Senate and moved to the Assembly in early June—the CRA calls opposing it “a top priority” of the CRA” and its partners.

The CRA and one of those partners, the CalChamber, were opponents of the expanded family leave act that recently passed the California Senate to advance to the Assembly.

“It’s a function of the California political landscape [to be] different from everywhere else,” says Steve Smith about the CRA. “It’s not a favorable landscape so they are not successful on big issues.”

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