D.C. restaurant workers seek more equitable wages. (Brigette White/The Washington Informer)
D.C. restaurant workers seek more equitable wages. (Brigette White/The Washington Informer)

To the chagrin of fair-wage advocates, a recent D.C. court decision prevents the D.C. Board of Elections from certifying tens of thousands of signatures that Initiative 77 supporters collected within a week.

Those petitions, had they been approved, would’ve revitalized debate around the voter-approved ballot measure that the D.C Council repealed earlier this year.

Hours after D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz ruled in favor of the local restaurant industry, representatives of the Save Our Vote movement filed an appeal implicating the elections board in what had been described as its attempt to stymie efforts to stop the Initiative 77 repeal.

“As the attorney for the Board of Elections admitted, what we have here is impossible,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor, activist, and a Save Our Vote leader said in reference to laws he labeled as detrimental to efforts to reverse the D.C. Council’s repeal of Initiative 77. “If they followed the timeline prescribed in that regulation, we would have 48 hours to raise those signatures.”

Hagler, senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast, described hurdles he and his colleagues faced since Nov. 8, when election board officials approved the petition drive for what would be called Referendum 8. Organizers had to collect at least 25,000 signatures — representing 5 percent of the local electorate — before Dec. 12, the end of the Congressional Review period for the Initiative 77 repeal.

Late last month, as the courts deliberated language to be used on the Referendum 8 petition, Valerie Graham, a bartender represented by local lobbying group Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, filed a lawsuit that challenged the wording. The subsequent legal battle delayed the elections board’s distribution of petitions to Save Our Vote organizers by more than two weeks, significantly cutting the time allotted to collect signatures and challenge Initiative 77’s repeal.

“There was a hearing to hammer out the language for the referendum,” Hagler said. “When it was accepted, in the regulations there is a 10-day challenge period.”

Last week, by the time the board determined that Save Our Vote met the petition requirements and requested a stop to the Congressional Review process, the judge had ruled in Graham’s favor, asserting that board hadn’t given proper public notification about the hearing to approve the language of Referendum 8. Minutes had passed before the board had to rescind what would’ve been a game-changer for Save Our Vote members.

Hagler said the sequence of events spoke to institutional shortfalls.

“On the 10th day of the challenge period, while the 30-day Congressional Review clock is ticking, the Restaurant Association files a challenge,” he said. “We could not get on the schedule of the court for seven days in order to defend ourselves from the complaint. Now 17 days are gone. This was all set up to make sure we don’t weigh in on the process.”

Last Wednesday, members of Save Our Vote submitted 35,000 signatures, well beyond the 25,000 required, to the elections board, thanks in part to the financial support of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), a New York-based restaurant workers advocacy organization that recruited 200 paid and volunteer petition circulators, the majority of whom had D.C. residency, to collect signatures throughout the District in support of a reversal to the D.C. Council’s October repeal of Initiative 77.

D.C. voters approved Initiative 77 by a 10 -point margin on June 19 at the start of what has been a monthslong battle between parties that differ on the issue of tipped worker compensation. Had Initiative 77 been implemented, business owners would be obligated to gradually pay their tipped employees the full minimum wage, currently at $13.25 per hour, and to increase to $15 by 2020.

Opponents of Initiative 77 — including D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Vince Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8), all of whom voted for its repeal in October — criticized what had been described as the legislation’s confusing language and potential threat to the District’s restaurant industry.

But people on the front lines of the Save Our Vote movement argue that the council’s rationale countered what led D.C. voters to overwhelmingly approve Initiative 77.

“The unfortunate thing is that the starting point is a belief that our elected officials are going to look out for us,” said Brigette Rouson, a local activist who spent part of last week collecting signatures based on a passion to ensure that people working in D.C. can make enough to support their families.

“It’s as if politicians are saying that this won’t work out because somehow, they know more than the people who are living this experience,” she said. “We don’t want to believe that this is the best government that money can buy, but it’s so clear at this point that they’re selling out the public interest. The judge’s injunction shows that all three branches of government are rigged.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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