The Wage Warrior

   < < Go Back

By Eliza Gray,

from TIME Magazine,

President Obama wants to raise the minimum wage. It’s Richard Berman’s job to stop him.

If you want to make some new friends and just as many enemies, here’s a helpful shortcut: take a position on raising the federal minimum wage. The question of how much workers at the bottom should be paid is fast becoming one of the most divisive issues in Washington. Liberals say a wage hike is the most immediate and fair tool we have to address growing inequality; conservatives argue that such a move would destroy jobs, throwing America’s wobbly recovery off its axis for good. Get ready to hear a lot more about it between now and the November midterms as Democrats and Republicans fight over the merits of an increase, which 76% of Americans favor, according to Gallup.

But the voice that may matter most is one many Americans have never heard of: Richard “Rick” Berman, a public relations guru and former lobbyist who claims to speak for the small-business owners who run the nation’s diners and corner stores. Berman has been arguing against the minimum wage for years on the grounds that it destroys jobs. He’s used a network of nonprofits to bludgeon his ideological opponents.

Dubbed Dr. Evil by his enemies, Berman uses rhetoric so brash that it polarizes even within the industry he’s been hired to defend. The television and newspaper advertisements he devised on behalf of industry have helped lay the groundwork for the minimum-wage fight in 2014. In a debate that lends itself to spin, Berman may be the most vilified spinmaster. But he may also be the key to understanding how disagreement over raising a wage earned by a mere 4.7% of the hourly workforce can send politicians into a paroxysm of recrimination and contradiction.

“People are not paid based on what they need,” Berman says. “They are paid based on what they can contribute.” He complains about the backlash against unpaid internships: “Quite frankly, I think people should be allowed to work for nothing.”

His tactics have at times divided the restaurant industry. Richard Rivera, a restaurant developer based in Sarasota, Fla., who worked with Berman at the casual-dining chain Steak & Ale in the 1970s, says of Berman, “Rick makes points and asks questions that are uncomfortable. That’s a good service. Not everyone agrees. People wish he would disappear both in and outside the industry. A lot are glad he’s there. We–the businesses–don’t do a very good job of telling our story.”

If you watch Fox News, you may have already seen the latest ad. A couple are dining at a restaurant when their waiter suddenly evaporates, leaving an iPad in his place. “Every time you use a self-checkout lane or even a touchscreen ordering system, it’s a task that used to be part of someone’s job description,” a narrator explains gravely. “When you raise the minimum wage, a new government report confirms that up to 1 million jobs will disappear,” the voice continues, referring to the CBO.

Berman points to the restaurant chain Chili’s, which will install tabletop computer screens for ordering at more than 800 of its restaurants this year. (A Chili’s spokesperson says the tablets are not designed to “replace” servers.) Berman argues that the Democrats’ proposal will only accelerate the march toward automation of low-end jobs. “This will only be fully appreciated in hindsight,” he says. “Technology has people pumping their own gas, getting their own boarding passes, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is an impact on the available jobs that don’t require high skills.”

As for Berman’s argument about the threat of technology, economists say they don’t yet know how it will affect employment in the future. It wasn’t analyzed in the CBO report.

For now, the President’s proposal doesn’t appear to have the votes in Congress to pass–though a more modest increase, say to $9.00 an hour, might succeed. But ultimately a new minimum wage won’t sink the economy. Neither is it a silver bullet for America’s inequality problem–and to Berman, anyone who suggests otherwise has a decidedly less lofty purpose. “People who are proponents of a minimum-wage hike can look very sympathetic and very compassionate,” he says. “The compassionate politicians that pass the laws don’t have their fingerprint on the outcome.”

More From TIME Magazine (subscription required):