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Industry groups wage PR battle to defend low wages

Pro-industry groups have been honing their talking points in an effort to stem the tide of the low-wage worker movement.

As the movement to raise pay for low-wage workers has gained momentum, it’s often seemed to meet little resistance. Nationwide rallies last month in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage drew largely positive news coverage, and furthered a sense that the campaign’s opponents were being overrun.

But more quietly, well-connected industry groups have been responding to the threat. Over the last year, influential Beltway trade associations, pro-business  lobbying groups, and their allies have been honing talking points in an effort to sway the debate in their direction. These groups know that they don't necessarily have to win over a majority of the public—only generate enough controversy to ward off action by policymakers.

Still, at a time of rising concern over inequality and slow wage growth, they’re facing stiff headwinds. Several states, including deep-red Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—raised their minimum wage at the start of the year, and Seattle and San Francisco recently went all the way to $15 an hour. Congressional Democrats last week introduced a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour, with “enthusiastic” support from the White House.  Hillary Clinton has signaled that the need to reduce inequality and give struggling low-wage workers a boost will be a major focus of her campaign. Even Republican presidential hopefuls have been made to address the issue. And a study released last month by the University of California, Berkeley found that low wages cost taxpayers more than $150 million per year.

Related: Low-wage workers’ massive show of strength

But above all, powering the campaign have been compelling personal stories offered by low-wage workers in the fast-food and retail sectors of trying to get by—and in some cases, support kids—while making poverty wages. 

In crafting a response, low-wage employers and their representatives know they need to tread softly. They’ve been careful to avoid being drawn into a direct argument about the grim reality of many workers’ existences, instead, looking to shift the debate to other terrain.

Several low-wage employers have offered limited concessions on wages in an effort—so far unsuccessful—to take the steam out of the movement. And industry groups including the National Restaurant Association are waging a high-stakes campaign to stop the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) from defining franchisors as “joint employers.” If the NLRB does so, it would give a major boost to the low-wage worker movement by making companies like McDonald's responsible for the treatment of franchise employees.

But much of the counter-attack is aimed at shaping public—or at least elite—opinion.

One rhetorical tactic has been to portray low-wage workers not as full adults who often support families and need to be paid a living wage, but rather as young people just looking for work experience. Earlier this year, Joe Kefauver, a former Wal-Mart executive who now runs the PR firm Parquet Public Affairs, laid out the strategy in a remarkably candid blog post

Kefauver acknowledged that industry is “losing ground seemingly by the day” in the debate over the minimum wage. “[O]ur justifiable and fact-based arguments about wages, hours, business models, margins and profitability are not resonating with the people we are trying to convince,” he added.

Instead, Kefauver advised his side to portray low-wage jobs as a “necessary first step onto the economic ladder.”

“Let’s get out of the sticky bog of debating wage levels and seek the higher ground of the invaluable role that entry-level employment plays in our economy,” Kefauver urged. “Let’s talk less about our industry’s business model and talk more about our role in America’s economic model.” (italics his).

Jeb Bush, among other prominent Republicans, appears to have taken Kefauver’s advice.

"The federal government doing this will make it harder and harder for the first rung of the ladder to be reached, particularly for young people,” the GOP presidential hopeful said recently when asked about raising the minimum wage. “Particularly for people that have less education."

"The federal government doing this will make it harder and harder for the first rung of the ladder to be reached."'

In fact, nearly half of those workers making less than $15 an hour are 35 or older, according to data compiled by advocates for low-wage workers.   

Industry representatives also are aggressively highlighting the role of labor unions in the minimum wage movement, portraying the campaign as a failing effort by organized labor to gain a foothold in industries like fast-food and retail that have traditionally been inhospitable territory. 

“The long-term goal of the Fight for 15 and other efforts is unionization,” said Ryan Williams of the business-backed Worker Center Watch (WCW). “These organizations are trying to unionize Walmart, unionize fast-food restaurants.”   

Williams and his group also charge that the union-backed worker centers that have played a key role in the low-wage worker movement are an effort to get around labor laws which unions are bound by, and to give the movement the gloss of grassroots authenticity.

Glenn Spencer of the business-backed Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative argued that so far, organized labor hasn't seen a return on its investment.

"We’re looking at north of $30 million that the SEIU has put into these protests," said Spencer. "At the end of the day, none of this is being converted into actual union members."  

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April 15, 201513:02

Rick Berman, a veteran Washington industry lobbyist known for what critics have called deceptive PR tactics, has even set up a website devoted exclusively to attacking one worker centers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which has played a key role in the Fight for $15 movement.

The groups' rhetoric can be aggressive. A 2013 online video put out by Worker Center Watch that attacked Black Friday activists as “professional protesters” who “haven’t bothered to get jobs.”

A 2013 story in The Nation found that WCW was led at the time by Kefauver, the PR consultant. Williams described the group as a “consortium of people who are concerned about this issue,” without elaborating.

“What we’re focused on is simply exposing the theatrics and the well-funded smear campaign that a lot of these unions are funding, through workers centers,” Williams added.