A look at the Restaurant Opportunities Center
A petition drive to put a minimum wage increase on the statewide ballot in Michigan is only superficially about the minimum wage and isn't really Michigan based, says a watchdog group monitoring the issue and the groups behind it.
In fact, says Mike Paranzino, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which is actively supporting a minimum wage increase, is really just a labor front group. Paranzino is communications director for ROCexposed, an organization dedicated to educating people about "worker centers," which are being organized by ROC. ROCexposed provides a counter to ROC's research, illuminates its funding and highlights the tactics ROC uses against restaurants and restaurant workers.
ROC also is the hub of a coordinated national push for minimum wage increases in multiple states and has established groups to pursue this goal within individual states, Paranzino said. In Michigan, that group is, "Raise Michigan," which is working to get the issue on the statewide November ballot.
In early February, "Raise Michigan" submitted a petition to increase Michigan's minimum wage from $7.40 per hour to $9.50 per hour by 2017. But a week later the group amended the petition language to boost the increase to $10.10 per hour, matching the call by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address. Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer has suggested businesses be forced to pay an increased wage of $9.25 an hour.
Unlike Michigan's last minimum wage increase, the proposed jump in pay to $10.10 would also apply to the wages of tipped workers and, perhaps more significantly, after 2017 the wage would be indexed to inflation.
A spokesperson for the ROC denied that the organization is a union front group.
ROC-Michigan is an affiliate of the national group, ROC-United. The organizations say they are dedicated to improving working conditions in restaurants, increasing wages and getting restaurants to provide benefits to workers.
Paranzino says the ties to organized labor are clear and there is a clear link to the push for an increasing the minimum wage in Michigan. In the question-and-answer below, he provided some insight into ROC's actions in Michigan and some background about the group:
Q: What's the connection between ROC and "Raise Michigan"?
A: 'ROC Michigan' Director Frank Houston has said the campaign has secured up to $1 million to put the minimum wage increase on the statewide ballot. Of that, we know that $300,000 was pledged by ROC. Where the other $700,000 would be coming from has so far been undisclosed.
Houston is chairman of the Oakland County Democratic Party, and Treasurer of 'Raise Michigan.' Last fall, ROC put out a nationwide job posting, seeking someone to be the leader of the Michigan minimum wage drive. In that posting the drive was described as a multi-million dollar national effort.
Q: What do you mean when you say that ROC is a labor union front?
A: I mean it in the sense that it was union-founded and is increasingly working closely with the unions, particularly the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). In 2003, the New York Press reported that ROC's goals had evolved into efforts to organize the 99 percent of the restaurant industry that is non-union.
Q: Is this minimum wage increase proposal part of an effort during an election year to distract attention from what's going on in Washington, D.C., and particularly Obamacare?
A: Certainly, they can't afford to let the election be about Obamacare, and this is clearly a unified effort in multiple states. I think we just got a great example of what is really happening when 'Raise Michigan' had to go back and change its proposal to $10.10 per hour. They did that because apparently the $10.10 figure is the level that has been set nationally and the way they worded the proposal originally was overruled by those on the national level.
Q: What is the likelihood that a proposal like this one could be passed by the voters?
A: Polling shows that when you just ask people about raising the minimum wage it has a lot of popular support. A majority of voters tend to say: 'That sounds good, go ahead and give these workers more money.' But when you show that the minimum wage increase is a job-killer, such as with the Congressional Budget Office report predicting the loss of half a million jobs, support drops and it polls closer to 50-50.
Q: Has 'Raise Michigan' hurt the chances of the proposal passing in Michigan by aiming too high and indexing the wage to inflation?
A: They may have misfired by doing that. It could make it easier for people to understand that for many workers the increase won't be about making higher wages, it will be about making no wages at all.
Q: If the job-killing aspect of the proposal knocks it down closer to 50-50 in the polls, what arguments against the proposal might push it below 50 percent?
A: I think one down side to the unified multi-state approach is that it could be vulnerable if you can show people who and what the backers of the proposal really are. They are trying to portray themselves as a homespun Michigan movement, when in fact ROC is a New York-based operation with a co-director, who about a year ago was meeting privately at the White House making plans for this.
Also, I think it could be helpful to show that those who are the most likely to be hurt by a minimum wage hike are those workers who have obtained a lesser degree of education; and those are the same people who already suffer the most in terms of having difficulty getting jobs. A lot of people look at the unemployment rate in a state ... but not realize how high it is for those with less education.
ROC Spokeswoman Maria Myotte was contacted and given the opportunity to respond to Paranzino’s claims that ROC is a labor union front group and that the Michigan proposal is an extension of a coordinated national campaign controlled from outside the state. Myotte denied the first of Paranzino's two assertions.
"ROC United is not a union, nor a union front group," Myotte said. "ROC is a worker center that advocates for fair labor practices for workers within the restaurant industry. ROC-NY was founded at the request of HERE Local 100 after the terrorist attack on the twin towers destroyed Windows on the World — one of the few unionized restaurants in the city — as a way of supporting the restaurant workers that survived the attack. We do not receive funding from unions."