Initiative 82 sign
A sign promoting Initiative 82 in Columbia Heights. Credit: Alex Koma

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Maybe it was the thrill of a big win. Maybe it was some extra confidence courtesy of the Hellbender beer on offer at the victory party. Whatever the reason, Initiative 82 proposer Ryan O’Leary was unequivocal on election night: The local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America powered the tipped wage ballot measure’s overwhelming success.

O’Leary, a former restaurant worker who has spent the past year organizing around the issue, told Loose Lips that DSA was “the only reason” Initiative 82 added roughly 18 points to its margin of victory from its last incarnation as Initiative 77 four years ago. That’s almost certainly an oversimplification of things (and O’Leary clarified Tuesday that, with the benefit of hindsight, he’d rather call DSA’s work “the largest factor” in I82’s big improvement) but LL has still been thinking about his claim ever since.

Just about every political observer in D.C. expected Initiative 82 to pass, since Initiative 77 won by an 11-point margin in 2018. Both measures gradually eliminate D.C.’s two-tier wage system that allows employers to pay tipped workers a lower base wage as long as their tips add up to the minimum wage, currently $16.10. Many expected the margin to grow slightly, with the general election more likely than a primary to draw in lower-information voters disconnected from the restaurant industry’s robust campaigns waged against Initiative 82—as Julie Sproesser, interim executive director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, put it, “higher numbers of voters were asked to understand and determine a complex issue on how one very specific industry should operate.”

But such a big swing in its favor caught most everyone by surprise, particularly on a night when voters also sided against progressive favorite (and vocal Initiative 82 supporter) At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. Whatever generated such a change plainly deserves closer study.

So how much did the Metro D.C. chapter of the DSA contribute? Aparna Raj, a member of the group’s steering committee who led its Initiative 82 organizing efforts, sees several factors at play. At the top of the list is the group’s “very strong field game.” She says DSA volunteers knocked on roughly 18,000 doors to support Initiative 82, in addition to other education and outreach efforts to combat “misinformation from the opposition.”

“We talked to a lot of people in wards 7 and 8 that never had someone knock on their door before, but also a lot of people who didn’t realize it had been repealed,” Raj says, referring to the Council’s controversial vote to override the Initiative 77 results four years ago. “They were like, ‘I thought we voted for this already,’ and they were shocked and angered to find out what the Council did.”

DSA wasn’t nearly as organized in backing Initiative 77 four years ago, but the group was perhaps the most visible bunch of supporters on the ground for Initiative 82 this time around (particularly with other left-leaning groups focused on Silverman’s race). O’Leary notes that his Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry “didn’t fundraise at all” and relied pretty much entirely on volunteers from the DSA to power its campaign. He held a joint victory party with the group on election night, too. And DSA’s success running similarly expansive field programs for Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George and Ward 5 Councilmember-elect Zachary Parker suggests that there is reason to believe their door-knocking made a difference.

But centering a relatively nascent group like the DSA rubs some organizers the wrong way. Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, observes that her organizations have been working on the issue in D.C. since 2013, and that history accounts for some of the sustained support for ending the tipped wage system. Plus, Jayaraman notes that other local groups organized in support of Initiative 82, not just DSA. The hotel workers at Unite Here Local 25 knocked 10,000 doors in support of Initiative 82, she says, a number that the union confirmed.

“We’ve been at this for so long, publishing so many reports and talking to so many workers,” Jayaraman says. “Everybody’s going to want to take credit when you win. But there are women of color that have been leading this effort for the last decade. I do think that’s what made the difference.”

Jayaraman believes factors other than organizing contributed to Initiative 82’s surge, and she makes some compelling points. She believes the pandemic was a “breaking point” for many workers, with an increasing number simply deciding that they can’t accept the uncertainty of working for tips while also trying to enforce COVID-19 protocols on wary patrons. The effect was visible locally, where the movement of workers in support of the tipped wage that defined the debate in 2018 did not materialize a second time around.

“People just don’t want to work in the service industry anymore with wages as low as they are,” says Paul Schwalb, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25. “Masking and mandates really increased bad behavior…That may not be an issue anymore, but it is clear that the relationship between customers and workers has changed and this is something whose time has come.”

Raj and O’Leary don’t fundamentally disagree with those points, and they too see broader societal factors at play here. But Raj also bristles at implications that DSA didn’t help represent this movement of workers against the tipped wage system, noting that her group is still often tagged as outsiders by critics “leaning on old Cold War rhetoric” when much of its membership has deep roots locally. Raj herself points out that she works as a tenant organizer in Ward 8 as part of her DSA work, besides just focusing on local politics.

“Our steering committee has a majority of people of color and is also majority woman, and I think we often get painted as something that we’re not,” Raj says. “We’re the people who are also trying to figure out how to make rent, who also want to be able to live in the city for the long-term instead of having to move out of it. Who also just want to be able to make enough to take home each week to support our own families, and to make sure our parents can age in place. And people really respond to that.”

Fundamentally, Raj is hopeful that DSA has built enough of those connections to win a citywide race someday. If Initiative 82 is an imperfect measure of the group’s strength across the District due to the factors Jayaraman outlined, then perhaps a mayoral or Council campaign is.

“We’ll definitely be thinking about what this means for 2024 and 2026 and onwards,” Raj says. “I have no idea what candidates are going to come up in the next few years and what the chapter will actually commit to. But I definitely think that this has been a really exciting test case for a citywide campaign.”

Of course, DSA didn’t necessarily need to wait if it wanted to organize for a District-wide candidate with two at-large seats on the ballot this year. Silverman has her differences with DSA-supported candidates like Lewis George and Parker, but her focus on worker power would seem to make her a natural ally for the socialist side of the political spectrum.

But Raj notes that Silverman never sought the group’s endorsement, and the DSA only works on behalf of candidates who do so. If the group really was as successful in boosting Initiative 82 as O’Leary thinks, maybe she should have.

“It has to be a mutual decision,” Raj says, noting that Silverman may be on the left but would probably never “call herself a socialist.”

“We may agree on a lot of issues with a lot of people who are progressive and will continue to ally with them and will continue to fight with them on different legislation,” Raj says. “But part of us endorsing candidates is also that accountability mechanism. You know, if people decide to vote against tenants or against workers, then we won’t necessarily endorse them the next time around.”