The Racist, Twisted History of Tipping

tags: racism

Maddie Oatman is the senior research editor at Mother Jones. For more of her stories, click here. To follow her on Twitter, click hereRSS | TWITTER

… On the surface, tipping seems little more than a reward for astute recommendations and polite, speedy service. But the practice has unsavory roots, as Saru Jayaraman, a labor activist and author of Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, told me during a taping of Bite, the new food and politics podcast from Mother Jones. The origin of the word is unclear—one theory says "tip" is shorthand for "to insure promptness"; another suggests it's from 17th-century thief slang meaning "to give." In any case, European aristocrats popularized the habit of slipping gratuities to their hosts' servants, and by the mid-1800s rich Americans, hoping to flaunt their European sophistication, had brought the practice home.

Restaurants and rail operators, notably Pullman, embraced tipping primarily, Jayaraman says, because it enabled them to save money by hiring newly freed slaves to work for tips alone. Plenty of Americans frowned upon the practice, and a union-led movement begat bans on tipping in several states. The fervor spread to Europe, too, before fizzling in the United States—by 1926, the state tipping bans had been repealed.

America's first minimum-wage law, passed by Congress in 1938, allowed states to set a lower wage for tipped workers, but it wasn't until the '60s that labor advocates persuaded Congress to adopt a federal tipped minimum wage that increased in tandem with the regular minimum wage. In 1996, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who was then head of the National Restaurant Association, helped convince a Republican-led Congress to decouple the two wages. The tipped minimum has been stuck at $2.13 ever since.

This is why restaurant workers today take home some of the lowest pay offered by any industry. Seven of the 10 worst-paying job categories tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are in food services. Real median wages for waiters and waitresses are down 5 percent since 2009; cooks saw a decline of 9 percent.

Sure, we occasionally hear about waiters hauling in $80K at posh urban establishments. Those are the stories that corporate players such as Darden, the notoriously stingy owner of the Olive Garden chain, want you to remember. The restaurant association's website claims the national median take-home pay for tipped servers is $16 to $22 an hour. But those same workers, according to the BLS, made just $9.01 an hour in 2014—poverty wages for a family of four and nowhere near enough to cover rent on the average two-bedroom apartment. (The association says this figure is low because some restaurants report tips improperly.)

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