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(Photo: Michael Hooiman/ Flickr)

Jane Fonda is a member of four labor unions. “I know I grew up in privilege,” Fonda said at a recent Georgetown University forum. “But without unions, they’d probably have us working 20-hour days.”

But Fonda, at age 79, appears to have no trouble with those hours. On top of promoting her new Netflix movie with Robert Redford, Our Souls At Night, and co-starring in the Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, she’s found time to become a leading champion of raising wages for restaurant workers.

“After the election, I felt I’d been hit by a truck,” Fonda told a packed crowd at the October 23 Georgetown event. “I’m old. And I’ve never felt this way before.”

The Hollywood actor said she asked herself what she could do to get out of her post-election funk. Her answer? “Organize.”

She credits her father Henry Fonda, and his movie The Grapes of Wrath, with helping her understand the essence of organizing. “What do I mean by ‘organizing’? I mean talking to people — listening to people.”

With her Grace and Frankie co-star Lily Tomlin, Fonda recently headlined a week-long series of events in Michigan to support the One Fair Wage campaign, which aims to raise the state’s minimum wage and bring parity between the full minimum wage and the wage that tipped workers receive.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at just $2.13 for the past 26 years. While seven states have eliminated the subminimum tipped wage altogether, others have maintained this two-tier system. In Michigan, the tipped minimum wage is just above the federal mandate, at $3.38 per hour.

The One Fair Wage campaign aims to put the issue on the Michigan ballot in 2018. They hope to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022, with tipped workers earning the same by 2024.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), the worker advocacy group driving the campaign, is also working to win a 2018 ballot initiative in the nation’s capital. The restaurant industry is booming in Washington, D.C., but the district’s tipped minimum wage is just $3.33 an hour. Employers are supposed to make up the difference if their workers’ total pay (tips plus wages) doesn’t add up to at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. But a lack of enforcement means noncompliance runs rampant.

“These employers are very often huge corporations, like the ones behind Olive Garden and Denny’s,” Fonda explained. “Customers shouldn’t have to make up the difference when multi-millionaire types don’t pay a living wage.”

On top of wage campaigns in Michigan, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, ROC is facing a move by the Trump administration and a restaurant industry lobby group that could force workers to hand over their tips to their bosses.

new ROC report details how Trump’s Department of Labor (DoL) and the National Restaurant Association are working to overturn decades of state and federal law giving workers control over their tips.

Under the Obama administration, the DoL reinforced decades of legal precedents when it clarified in 2011 that tips are always the property of the employee. The regulation prevented restaurants from requiring servers to share tips with other employees, regardless of whether employers were paying tipped workers the standard or subminimum wage.

But after court challenges from the restaurant industry, the DoL said in July 2017 that it intended to rescind this regulation. If this happens, all employers will be able to gain ownership of tips as long as they pay the minimum wage. ROC argues that this “tip theft” would exacerbate the already high rates of poverty, discrimination, and sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

Fonda took aim at the National Restaurant Association in her Georgetown speech. “In terms of the power they’ve wielded for generations to prevent workers’ wages from increasing, they’re almost on par with the other NRA — you know, this one,” she said, mimicking shooting a rifle.

“The NRA goes around saying that raising wages would destroy the industry,” Fonda said. “They are lying to you.”

Unfortunately for the restaurant lobby, Fonda doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. After lobbying the DC City Council to uphold what is expected to be a win at the ballot box in June 2018, she headed off for similar events in New York to promote a raise in that state’s tipped minimum wage.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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