FREE SPEECH ZONE | The media faces special challenges in the coming elections


On Thursday, July 20, in the Star Tribune Michael Saltsman, representing the Employment Policies Institute, wrote what appeared to be a compelling argument for to eliminate the minimum wage for restaurant servers. It was in support of the Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, Tom Emmer, who made such a proposal because (to quote him): “many servers now make over $100,000 per year”. His contention was absurd, and rejected by virtually all parties (except Saltsman).

I can easily understand how this debate has become tiresome for all interested in the issue; never the less, the Saltsman piece demands further vetting and some deeper examination. By that, I do not mean to start parsing all the pennies, and nuances of the minimum wage (that has been done); nor to revisit the issue that servers are already sufficiently compensated.  Instead, I approach this with two separate and new commentaries not yet addressed – how gullible is the media; and the danger of corporate interests gaining media power in our country.

First is: who is Michael Saltsman…who is the Employment Policies Institute (EPI)… and from what viewpoint is his article coming from? It’s not hard to research the Employment Policies Institute — it is one of the right wing front groups set up by the notorious Rick Berman; and Saltsman works for him. Who is Rick Berman?  Richard B. (Rick) Berman is a former labor management attorney and restaurant industry executive who is a leading and famously aggressive lobbyist for the food, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries. He is the sole owner of Berman & Co., which sponsors many non-profit front groups that defend his corporate clients’ interests by attacking their critics, thus allowing his paying clients to remain out of public view. 

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Berman has earned the nicknames “Dr. Evil,” and the “Conservatives’ Weapon of Mass Destruction” for his repeated use of the strategy of forming non-profit front groups that advocate for the interest’s big business while shielding those same businesses from disclosing financial support for these efforts. He has battled such groups as the Humane Society, MADD, and worked behind the scenes in behalf of folks like Phillip Morris. There also have been allegations from sources like the New York Times  that Berman sets up nonprofits, including his infamous Center for Consumer Freedom, that funnel nearly all their money to his for-profit company. This provides two benefits to the companies that retain his services: they are shielded from having to disclose that they are funding Berman’s attack campaigns, and they also get to write off this money as a charitable donation.

One of his entities is the aforementioned EPI.  So, who are they, and what is their interest in our state’s tip credit?  Well to make this clear and simple, let me quote from Wikipedia:

“EPI has been widely quoted in news stories regarding minimum wage issues, and although a few of those stories have correctly described it as a ‘think tank financed by business,’ most stories fail to provide any identification that would enable readers to identify the vested interests behind its pronouncements (kindly note this Star Trib piece). Instead, it is usually described exactly the way it describes itself, as a “non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth” that “focuses on issues that affect entry-level employment.” In reality, EPI‘s mission is to keep the minimum wage low so Berman’s clients can continue to pay their workers as little as possible.

“Then, as now, fast-food employees were the largest group of low-paid workers in the United States. One-quarter of the workers in the restaurant industry are estimated to earn the minimum wage–a higher proportion than in any other U.S. industry. This is the real reason why EPI appears on the scene whenever federal or local governments consider a proposal to increase the minimum wage. Its standard tactic is to trot out a study using contrived statistics designed to show that hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost if the wage is raised… Even the Food Institute Report, an industry trade publication, admitted … ‘the weight of the empirical evidence suggests that the effects [on the number of available jobs] of a moderate raise from its current level are likely to be negligible.’

By publishing the EPI piece as an op-ed – without describing the sources – the media has fallen into the trap of corporate propaganda; and with unlimited corporate funding of elections, just around the corner, red flags and extra scrutiny should be the watchword in the future for such submissions. The current Sherrod flap give added credence to this caution.

As to the larger issue regarding Emmer, again forgetting all the nuances of tips, credits, hourly costs, server income, etc, what this is really about is what kind of governor do we want…and what kind of governor will we get in the next election? That is what this is really about! The Democrats – all three candidates – have sided with the servers in this issue. The Republican – Emmer has sided with the Minnesota Restaurant Association on this issue. The Restaurant Association has been fighting this battle not for years – but for decades! That is their right, that is their role, that is why they exist. But their view point is antithetical to the interests of the average food service employee; and is totally in support of the restaurant owners.  Should Emmer be elected, that will be the position of our state government going forward.

The true value of the Saltsman op-ed is that it brings this difference in political philosophy into crystal clear focus.  Do we, as citizens want the interests of the Rick Bermans…the Michael Saltsmans…the Employment Policy Institute…and Tom Emmer to govern us; or do we wish to have a governor who is more committed to looking after the interests of the average Minnesotan? That should also translate to elections in your state.  We will have that choice November 2nd.