One conservative group’s successful infiltration of the media

Astroturf. Photo: bitjungle, Wikimedia Commons

In editorials and juicy quotes to news organizations across the nation, restaurant workers are speaking up against paying tipped workers a minimum wage. Six restaurant workers, specifically.

This group is the all-white board of an opaque 501(c)4 called the Restaurant Workers of America (RWA), funded by restaurant owners, that regularly appears with restaurant industry trade groups and Republican politicians to praise the exception to the minimum wage that is made for tipped waiters and bartenders. Its most prominent spokespeople are tipped waitstaff who publicly support the interests of restaurant owners. Though the group’s members describe themselves as liberal and anti-Trump in various quotes and on Twitter, one of its members is actively running as a conservative independent for a position in the Maine House of Representatives—a fact noted nowhere in publications quoting her.

The group’s board members have been active at every level of coverage in more than one recent push to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, which appears to be the RWA’s main issue (though they have also said that well-documented claims of pervasive sexual harassment in the industry are overblown). They author op-eds where they are identified as part of a political group in one place, are quoted simply as “tipped waitstaff” in other places, and have managed to score at least one high-level profile, in BuzzFeed. Identification of the RWA board as an organized political group is scattershot; examination of its funding structure and support base is nonexistent, with the exception of one article by Rebecca McCarthy in The Outline.

Since its inception in December 2017, Google shows the group appearing in more than 70 news articles and opinion pieces published by outlets from The Washington Post to The New York Times to Reason. CJR could not find an article quoting any RWA member that identifies them as members of a restaurant-owner funded group, though the information is readily available through its website. (RWA offers three levels of membership: one for large restaurants at $500, one for small restaurants at $100, and one for restaurant employees, who may join for free.)

‘Kathy Hollinger [head of the district’s restaurant trade association] wrote me a check,’ explained RWA board member Ryan Aston.

The Restaurant Workers of America’s press offensive came in advance of a referendum in Washington, DC, on ballot initiative 77, which would repeal the “tip credit,” a rule allowing restaurants to pay staff less than minimum wage so long as they make up the difference in tips. The ballot initiative passed Tuesday, but there are more referenda and bills on the issue to come. Beyond the ongoing issue of wage law, the way reporters and editors have approached voices from what could be described as an “astroturf”—fake grassroots—group holds lessons for journalists covering all kinds of activists, who, noble or not, have explicit political aims.

Coverage of tipping legislation is difficult not least because it addresses multiple industries, all of them local, and because the stakes for those in poverty are so high. Employers use the minimum-wage exception to justify paying employees (wait staff, but also parking attendants and delivery workers) less, and sometimes steal from them, as a matter of course: In a compliance sweep of about 9,000 restaurants in 2011 to 2012, more than 83 percent of restaurants were found to have violated the tip credit, the Department of Labor told the Economic Policy Institute. In that sweep alone, more than 1,700 instances of wage theft resulted in some $5.5 million in backpay. Thus, opponents of the law working in restaurants and speaking to reporters tended to staff DC’s flourishing independent restaurant scene, and workers at the district’s chain restaurants were been conspicuously absent from coverage.

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The name “Restaurant Workers of America” follows the pattern of a union (see, for instance, Communication Workers of America), and it is easy to scan their promotional material and decide that they simply represent one side of a complicated debate between tipped workers. Even The New York Times has mentioned them in passing. But it’s not clear that the group has any broad support from tipped workers, besides the obvious spokespeople. The group’s founder, Joshua Chaisson, said he did not “have the numbers in front of me” a phone interview.

As reporters know all too well, the pressure to file regularly, especially on a beat arousing sudden national interest, can trump the need to vet every individual source. But that need is there, as the RWA’s frequent quotation demonstrates. Coverage of tipping legislation has been cast regularly as a vigorous debate among servers, in dozens of cases with contributions from the RWA. With ballot initiatives looming, the pressure on reporters is that much greater, and activists can be relied on to exploit harried reporters. But the responsibility remains.

Even when RWA is identified in stories, its mission statement is seemingly taken at face value. Ryan Aston, an RWA board member and bartender at a DC restaurant called The Hamilton, was identified as part of the group in a piece bylined just a few weeks after the RWA’s inception: an op-ed in The Washington Post in January titled, “I’m your bartender. I don’t want a raise,” and is quoted extensively in the BuzzFeed feature, which exclusively quotes RWA members as the no-on-77 side. Aston also shows up in a Washington City Paper article on the anti-wage-increase pop-up bar he opened with two other tipped workers—one who tweets with the #RWA hashtag, and another who is the owner of something called “Barsultants.” Claudia Koerner, who authored the BuzzFeed article, tells CJR she reached out to Chaisson directly but is unable to give further comment before this story’s publication.

Aston is not identified as a board member of the RWA in two Washington City Paper articles that quote him; the author, Laura Hayes, tells CJR she was aware of Aston’s RWA board affiliation but that he was working with other tipped workers, whom she has sought out in an effort to learn how the base-wage increase would affect the local industry. “I have focused my coverage almost entirely on talking to tipped workers because they have the most to gain or lose through this initiative,” she says.

ICYMI: The bought-out.

And the group has direct ties to organizations more clearly backed by large, national lobbyists that represent the restaurant chains for whom this legislation represents a seismic shift. In May, Save Our Tips, a campaign backed by the National Restaurant Association, paid Aston $800 for “advertising”—Aston says he was being reimbursed for buttons he had purchased for an event the group was holding that he was helping to organize. (Save Our Tips, The Intercept reported last week, is managed by the Lincoln Strategy Group, which was paid $600,000 in 2016 by the Trump campaign, and is managed by a GOP consultant and former head of the Arizona Christian Coalition, Nathaniel Sproul. Sproul has made headlines for suspected voter fraud.) “Kathy Hollinger [head of the district’s restaurant trade association] wrote me a check,” he explains. Aston declined to tell CJR who put him in touch with The Washington Post, but Chaisson maintains that the group does not use a PR agency. CJR has contacted two editors at the Post’s opinion section requesting comment.

The other board members are nearly as ubiquitous as Chaisson and Aston. Wendyll Caisse, an RWA board member and a restaurant owner, is quoted in a Crain’s article and has an op-ed in the conservative Inside Sources.

Carrie Smith, who is running for Maine state house with financial help from Caisse, co-wrote an op-ed in the Portland Press-Herald with Chaisson. Greg Kesich, the Press-Herald’s opinion page editor, said she did not disclose the fact that she was running for office. A fifth board member, Jennifer Schellenberg, has quotes in the the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and an opinion piece in The Washington Examiner. The last, Simone Barrone, co-wrote an op-ed in the Everett Herald and has told BuzzFeed she found women’s accounts of begrudgingly flirting for higher tips “demeaning.”

Chaisson described himself to BuzzFeed, which exclusively quoted RWA members in its piece on the “debate,” as “a very proud, very, very blue Democrat,” which is an odd bona fide for someone with quotes to Townhall.com and Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire.

Not to mention his enthusiastic support of chain restaurants. “Our opposition has painted corporate restaurants as the devil’s brothel and I refuse to buy into that characterization,” Chaisson tells CJR. He credits the group’s success with the media primarily to elbow grease, and to a need for sources. “There aren’t any other major organizations [of servers] who are pushing to save the tip credit,” he observes.

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Sam Thielman is the Tow editor at Columbia Journalism Review.