Herman Cain, the Other NRA and the Stagnant Minimum Wage

Mike Elk

Herman Cain was instrumental in convincing lawmakers to let America's minimum wage stagnate during the 1990s.

Over the week­end, Her­man Cain, the for­mer CEO of God­fa­ther Piz­za and for­mer CEO of the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion, shocked many polit­i­cal observers when he won the Flori­da GOP Pres­i­den­tial Straw Poll. While it is unclear what effect Cain’s show­ing in straw poll will have on his elec­toral chances, Slate’s Dave Weigel wrote that Cain’s vic­to­ry in the Flori­da straw poll showed that in the Tea Par­ty-fla­vored GOP Cain is a rock star who gen­er­at­ed deep affection”.

Many dis­missed Cain’s chances ear­ly on because of his unusu­al state­ments — such as his inter­est in stop­ping ille­gal immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States by build­ing a moat full of alli­ga­tors between Mex­i­co and the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, those famil­iar with Cain from his lead­er­ship of the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion know that he is an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly savvy polit­i­cal play­er. In 1993, Cain became vice chair­man of the NRA and its lead media spokesper­son — and the organization’s influ­ence rapid­ly grew.

When he became a leader of the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion that year, it emerged as the lead­ing spokes­peo­ple against the Clin­ton health­care bill, the 1993 eco­nom­ic pack­age and bud­get, any min­i­mum wage increas­es, and a wide vari­ety of oth­er pro­gres­sive eco­nom­ic mea­sures,” says Mike Lux, spe­cial assis­tant to Pres­i­dent Clin­ton for pub­lic liaison.

Cain por­trayed him­self as speak­ing for small busi­ness, but small busi­ness­es would have dra­mat­i­cal­ly ben­e­fit­ed from health­care reform, and did ben­e­fit huge­ly from the 1993 bud­get. In fact, most of the Nation­al Restau­rant Association’s mon­ey came from the big chain restau­rants- McDonald’s, Piz­za Hut, — and because they would have final­ly had to offer their work­ers’ health care and high­er min­i­mum wages, and because their very wealthy execs would had to pay more in tax­es because of the 93 bud­get bill, they hat­ed the leg­is­la­tion Clin­ton was push­ing. Cain was their per­fect front man” says Lux.

After a suc­cess­ful role in Clin­ton health­care fight, Cain became chair­man of the orga­ni­za­tion in 1994, and then worked full time as its CEO from 1996 to 1999. In his lead­er­ship role Cain trans­formed the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion from a sleepy lit­tle trade asso­ci­a­tion to earn­ing a spot in Forbes Mag­a­zine 1997 Sur­vey of Washington’s 25 most pow­er­ful pres­sure groups com­ing at num­ber 24.

When Cain took over the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion in the mid-90s it became much more politi­cized” says Jose Oli­va, pol­i­cy coor­di­na­tor at the work­er advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ters Unit­ed. Cain fought off the efforts to make the NRA a real trade asso­ci­a­tion that rep­re­sent­ed var­i­ous types of views and real­ly point­ed it in the direc­tions of extreme lib­er­tar­i­an con­ser­vatism. He became a celebri­ty for lib­er­tar­i­an ide­o­logues for this reason”.

Cain was par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive dur­ing the 1996 fight over the min­i­mum wage. Approx­i­mate­ly 3.3 mil­lion tipped work­ers (with 2 mil­lion of them being servers) receive a sub­stan­dard min­i­mum wage of $2.13 an hour. Between 1950 and 1991, the wage for restau­rant servers had always increased every time the min­i­mum wage increased. In the 1996 fight over increas­ing the min­i­mum wage, how­ev­er, Cain was deter­mined not to see server’s wage increase in con­junc­tion for the first time ever. And that’s exact­ly what happened.

Her­man Cain did more than just pre­vent servers from see­ing their wages increased. He worked hard to turn politi­cians against using min­i­mum wage increas­es as a pop­u­lar elec­tion year slo­gan to win votes from under­paid workers.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, a min­i­mum wage increase was some­thing that was passed every cou­ple years. It was some­thing that politi­cians ran on in an elec­tion year. It’s a wild­ly pop­u­lar issue even to con­ser­v­a­tive vot­ers who make low wages” says Oli­va. A fall 2010 poll backs up Oli­va, a vet­er­an activist; 67 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port increas­ing the min­i­mum wage to $10 an hour.

Dur­ing the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Barack Oba­ma promised to raise the min­i­mum wage to $9.50 an hour. But since tak­ing office, Oba­ma has ceased men­tion­ing the issue of rais­ing the min­i­mum wage.

In the past, up until the 1990s, we were always able to over­come their voic­es in the Wash­ing­ton because rais­ing the min­i­mum wage is such a polit­i­cal­ly pop­u­lar issue. How­ev­er, the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion is now so pow­er­ful as a result of peo­ple like Her­man Cain that it didn’t even become an issue among Democ­rats. A lot of mem­bers won’t even talk about it. Some say my career will be over if I touch this” says Oliva.

How­ev­er, unlike politi­cians whose careers may be ruined by try­ing to increase the min­i­mum wage for the mil­lions of Amer­i­cans earn­ing the min­i­mum, increas­ing the min­i­mum wage would dra­mat­i­cal­ly improve their careers. Despite the strong oppo­si­tion from pow­er­ful lob­by­ists like the NRA, some politi­cians — like Con­gress­woman Don­na Edwards (D‑Md.) spon­sor of WAGES Act, which would increase the min­i­mum wage for tipped work­ers — say they will con­tin­ue fight­ing on behalf of low-wage workers.

The NRA has been effec­tive in spread­ing myth that restau­rants will shut down [and] peo­ple will lose jobs, even though evi­dence sug­gests that rais­ing the min­i­mum wage is good for the econ­o­my. Still, we con­tin­ue to reach out to our col­leagues one by one to bring them on board;” says Edwards. I used to work for tips, so I know what it means to put togeth­er enough tips to pay the rent. I am deter­mined. I am a fight­er. I think it’s pos­si­ble to beat any restau­rant group. We need to make this a fight for the people”.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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