An Open Letter to the “Astroturf” Drink Tax Foes-Retracted

Due to a hasty skimming of a Pittsburgh Tribune Review article, the YT had carelessly and incorrectly associated FACT, with the DC lobbying firm, the American Beverage Institute. They are apparently waging separate campaigns against the proposed drink tax. Despite the fact that the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, the primary source of FACT’s funding(as in single largest contributor), is affiliated with ABI, that does not constitute a direct link.

Dear Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation (FACT),

As a former restaurant employee, who has done eleven years hard time, primarily in mom-and-pop or local chain establishments (including some who are involved with FACT), I’m well aware of the difficult nature of that industry. You may also be aware that it is financially much more difficult for eateries that don’t have the State’s consent to sell alcohol, with its hefty mark-up. I’m not sure how the County’s other purveyors of alcohol are faring, but it’s absurd for any of the men who make up FACT’s board of directors to cry indigent or that their particular alcohol centered businesses will be drastically affected by the proposed 10% levy.

Do you worry about corporate chains running you out of business? Personally, if I were you, I’d be more worried about them than any drink tax or even the costs of fair treatment of the people whose labor you profit from. Do you think that being installed as an astroturf (a fake grassroots organization, created by lobbyists and PR firms that is meant to appear local and spontaneous) group for lobbyist Rick Berman, whose American Beverage Institute is the brains and bankroll behind your FACT group and the stopdrinktax.com website, could have some undesirable long-term consequences? Do you think Mr. Berman is more concerned with his Allegheny County pawns, who put the petty in petit bourgeois or his other clients, which include:

American Restaurant Group, Anheuser-Busch, Arby’s, Brinker International, Burger King, Carson Restaurants Worldwide, Chili’s, Chi-Chi’s, Cracker Barrel, El Torito, Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, Hard Rock Café, Hooters of America, Inc., Houston’s Restaurants, International House of Pancakes, Jack-in-the-Box, KKR Enterprises, Luby’s, Marie Callender Pie Shops, Marriott Corp., Metromedia Restaurant Group, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Panda Management Company, Perkins Family Restaurants, Rare Hospitality International, Red Lobster, Shoney’s, Sizzler, Steak & Ale, TGI Friday’s, Uno, Vicorp Restaurants, Wendy’s and more than I cared to copy and paste, but none of those omitted were local brewpubs. Seems like Stockholm syndrome or just little suicidal to me.

Granted you must be thrilled with some of Mr. Berman’s other work with front groups such as the Employment Policies Institute, which does all it can to keep the minimum wage as low as possible, the anti-worker Center for Union Facts, but not for you, for his big clients. Berman and Co. have even set up a group called Activist Cash, which seeks to discredit any organized opposition to their clients interests by painting them as recipients of dirty money or most ironically as front groups, like FACT and all the other Berman constructs.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) obviously doesn’t spend it’s money wisely, as the first priority of any bureaucracy is to ensure it’s own continued existence; the agency’s stated function is secondary. Contrary to what the media would have you believe, wages and benefits are not the problem, silly underwater tunnels that lead to casinos and management bonuses are the problem. Unlike yourself, I truly believe that bus drivers, as well as all working people, including those who make you fat, deserve a decent material standard of living.

Given the vast sums of public money that is spent locally to militarize law enforcement and on handouts to corporate parasites, I agree that the poured-drink tax wouldn’t have been my first choice, but at the end of the day, I’m more concerned with public transit than your profits. Nothing personal. You shouldn’t be shocked that I’m concerned with the interests of my social class, the same as you are concerned with yours. Life’s tough, just like you tell your employees if they need a weekend off.

However, your affluence comes with a high social cost and I’m not referring to the obvious things like drunk driving and heart disease and agribusiness. There are enough paid expert witnesses and politicians and activist-types to deal with that. I’m talking about the compensation and general treatment of the people who work themselves to death, so you don’t have to. Most of you only pay your waitstaff $2.83 an hour, because you can legally get away with it, and few if any of you offer any type of benefits to non-management. I’m talking about health insurance, not a 20% discount while they are at work. I wonder how many of your employees are forced to apply for medical assistance and how many of them fall through the cracks because “they earn too much”? Your exploitation of working people creates a burden on what passes for a “social safety net” in the US.

Your establishments are unsafe for the people who work there, physically and mentally. You pit workers against one another as another means of control, beyond your cameras and ID numbers and magnetic cards. Your schedules are erratic and subject to change at moment’s notice, and posted at the last possible moment, sometimes a day or two after it is already in effect. The hours are bad and it is hard to have much of a life when a shift typically starts in the afternoon and ends late at night. People who work in food service often carry on their social life while on the job which can lead to a hostile environment with all the near incestuous mating, dating and breaking up. Sexual harassment is so prevalent it often goes unnoticed, as there is nothing to contrast it with.

You also have a drinking and substance abuse problem. Not you personally, well, not all of you anyway. The industry, especially the trendy establishments, seem to favor a certain kind of lecherous, pretentious, Trustafarian, with a fondness for Peruvian marching powder, as the ideal candidate for management. You’ll turn a blind eye to all the open consumption of alcohol and other less socially acceptable inebriates, because you know if they sobered up, they’d never come back for more abuse from you and your customers. The police and courts are more than happy to deal with uninsured people who are having a substance abuse problem, by locking them up, since your industry’s aversion to employee benefits turns their medical issue into a moral/legal one. At least it’s one industry that has never really taken up the disturbing practice of urine testing.

I’m aware that you feel there is already too much State interference in your privileged existence as a business owner, but remember, like the lobbyists you are in bed with, the State is no more concerned about your continued financial well being as you are about a worker’s, and would love to replace all of your establishments with corporate chains. When that day comes, remember, you had a hand in your own undoing.

Sincerely,

Arson Daily

PS-Apparently alot of people aren’t fooled by this, since their online petition only had 4510 “signatures” as of 10:15 am 11/16/07

Recommended Reading:

Abolish Restaurants from prole.info

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8 Comments

  1. I Love it!

  2. Go have a look at the front window of State Rep. Chelsa Wagner’s office on Brookline Boulevard, and you will see one of Rick “Thank You For Smoking” Berman’s stopdrinktax.com signs. She’s a Democrat and a self-proclaimed supporter of public transit. Her opposition to the drink tax may be because she likes to go out and get trashed with her friends, but more likely it’s because she’s furthering the political goals of her uncle Jack, who relishes any opportunity to throw a monkeywrench in Onorato’s plans, because he sees Onorato as a deadly rival for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010. (If we’re lucky, neither one of them will prevail in this.)

    I’m not sure if the stopdrinktax.com website is run by Berman, because the only website mentioned in the Trib story you reference is the nodrinktax.com site, which contains only a bare-bones message to call Onorato. Whois information for stopdrinktax.com reveals that it’s registered under one of those anonymity-protecting firms. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Big Burrito and other assholes brought in Berman to run their site and campaign, though; Berman has been involved in local politics before, when his “evil EPI” was a source of arguments against the Living Wage ordinance.

  3. Whew. You had me worried for a minute, Felix. I went back and checked the Trib story, and they do mention Berman’s, American Beverage Institute.
    Needless to say, they haven’t responded.

  4. As a guy that sits on the Executive Committee of FACT and am the 2007 Chairman of the Board of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, I can tell you that Rick Berman and ABI have absolutely nothing to do with FACT. No contributions, nothing. FACT was set up entirely by many of us local restaurteurs who have been meeting weekly and actively fighting this unfair tax. Arson’s entire diatribe is based on fantasy. The signs that are seen in Chelsa’s window were probably paid for by me, as I put up the first $5,000 in printing to get us started. Later the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association kicked in $20,000 and we have passed the hat. Our $40,000 billboard campaign (25 billboards went up November 5) were financed entirely by passiing the hat with nuberous restsaurants and related businesses contributing their Greenapple trade dollars. This fight has been exhausiting and has kept many of us away from our businesses. The Finance Committee of Council has met Tues thru Thrusday the last few weeks and there are many of us there nightly. This is a grassroots fight and we are up against very powerful forces including the Allegheny Conference and the Dan Onorato machine.

    From my perspective, as a guy that has kept his doors open and employed 50-80 folks for the past 23 years in One Mellon Center, this fight is about my businesses survival. If I do not survive, my longterm employees lose thier jobs and yes thier health benefits. I hate the fact that a family health insureanc pollicy has now escalated to $1396 a month and that many of my employees cannot afford their share. I am very nearly at the point where I will not be able to afford the employer share. If this tax becomes a reality, it will be the final straw for many businesses that are just getting by. Believe me, in our industry in this region, that is the state for many.

    I am glad that Arson never worked for me. Yes, it is a tough industry and the hours can be more than difficult. But there is something wonderful about serving people and being there for the good times in their life. It gets in you blood. When I walked into a county club at age 14 looking for a job, I could not of imagined that I would never leave the hospitality industry. But it gets in your blood. There are plenty of great lifes and careeers that have started in the hospitality industy and there are plenty of folks that have been uplifted by their time served in our industry. I am sorroy that Arson had such a poor experience.

    However, no Rick Berman or ABI. I look forward to reading the retraction and the apology.

  5. I think that you embarrassing and changing editing needs to continue! “Despite the fact that the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, the primary source of FACT’s funding”

    How can you make that statement? I told you yesterday that the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association kicked in $20,000. I also told you that we passed the hat and received over $40,000 in trade dollar donations for the billboards alone. We have also raised enough from other individuals in our industry who know what is on the line to be able to run some radio spots and help pay a hired executive. In other words, the $20,000 from the PRA is not the primary source of FACT’s funding.

    “is affiliated with ABI”

    Could you please explain to me this affiliation? I have been a volunteer leader in this industry for 12 years at both the Chapter and State level of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association. I never considered myself or our organization affiliated with ABI. I did use some of their research on the issue of DUI checkpoints versus roving patrols (patrols work and checkpoints harass) for a column that I wrote for PRA Matters a few years back, but that is the only interaction I ever had with ABI. A lot of chain restaurants support ABI, but we do not contribute to them and I have never seen a line item in our budget to indicate that they have supported us. So can you please support your statement?

    To the absurd column itself:

    “Unlike yourself, I truly believe that bus drivers…deserve a decent material standard of living.”

    How can you presume to know what we believe or that we could all universally believe the same thing? Both of my grandfathers were immigrants that drove street cars to support their 12 offspring. They both owned homes and supported families. Many of my employees own homes and support families and are contributing to their kid’s tuition. Many of them participate in a 401-K program and contribute to their way too expensive health insurance plan. Do I wish I could afford to pay my cooks more? Damn right I do! I also wish that I could educate the rest of my children without going into major debt, but I do not see that happening either. Is $2.83 + tips for a server a fair wage? I did not design the tipping practice, but it is a fact of life in our industry. From my standpoint, the tipped employees (and I have been one for much of my life) are not the ones that I worry about. They are making a fine hourly wage for very difficult work. The chefs and back of the house employees are generally the class of employees that deserve to make a higher wage. They work harder during the busy times and yet, unlike the tipped employees, make the same wage. A drink tax will further depress the ability to give deserved and needed raises to these folks.

    “I’m more concerned with public transit than your profits.”

    It is not just profits we are concerned about. It is staying in business and keeping folks employed. Additionally, this is not about the Port Authority. The county was only required to increase their share by 5% this year. They have contributed $25 million for many years and were required to increase only $1.25 million. This tax will generate $35-50 million. This tax is about fixing a structural deficit in the county’s budget. If you had attended any of the County Council Finance Committee Meetings, you would have understood that. This was only about transit so that Dan Onorato could pit guys like you that need and value public transportation against guys like me. Many of our employees depend upon public transportation. Every time the schedules change I need to adjust my overnight pastry shifts. I have testified at more than one hearing supporting public transportation. I just do not believe the entire burden for the public share for mass transportation should be borne by my customers and my employees. It is not a fair or equitable tax. It should not be accepted just because a few politicians shared a back room in Harrisburg this summer and made it happen. This back room deal was done without economic impact studies or stakeholder involvement.

    “You pit workers against one another”

    In my 39 years as an employee, manager or owner, I don’t ever recall being pitted or pitting anyone against one another. One of the beautiful facets of the hospitality industry is just how close you are with the folks that you work with every day. You care about one another and are usually a happy family. It is hard for me to understand how you could ever have lasted 11 years in our industry. No doubt you bounced around hurting morale in every establishment that you toiled. I am sure that every establishment became a better place….after you left.

    The rest of your rant is not worthy of my time. If the restaurant industry was so terrible I surely would not have let any of my five children toil in it – and they all have. My wife is up at 4 AM each morning to go in and open her quick service Market and delivery and take care of her breakfast customers and I put in over 12 hours at least 5 out of my six work days this week. Just like the folks that we employ, we work hard. Independent restaurant owners are generally hard working folks that contribute to the betterment of their communities in more than a number of ways. You have painted a poor portrait that is just not true.

  6. Re the Drink Tax, it is important to know that the Drink Tax has nothing to do with Public Transportation. This is a smoke screen created by proponents of the Tax. Allegheny County needs to raise just $1.25 million more than last year for the state to fully fund the Port Authority. The County’s problem is that, as stated by County Treasurer Mark Flaherty and County Manager Jim Flynn, it runs a structural general operating deficit of up to $30 million per year. The amount they think they will raise with a Drink Tax? $30 million. Coincidence? I think not.

  7. John,

    Nothing, you say? If we lived in a democracy, that would be very troubling. I don’t attend those meetings, because they have nothing to do with me.
    The County has way more guns and goons than you or I do, but if you can come up with the funds for the Port Authority, I’m all ears.

  8. abolish restaurants was possibly influential in my decision to quit my most recent (unfortunately not the first or last) job… a good read


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