— Jody Avirgan (@jodyavirgan) August 26, 2015
On Monday, a billboard went up over Times Square ridiculing the call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for fast-food workers. The billboard depicts a doofy good-for-nothing millenial shrugging his way toward a $30,000-a-year salary, which it's worth noting, is just a hair over the average basic living expenses for the New York metro area. It should not come as a surprise that the $100,000 ad was paid for a restaurant-industry backed report-generator called the Employment Policies Institute, an arm of Washington, DC corporate operative Rick Berman's PR organization.
Berman has garnered the moniker "Dr. Evil" from activists and CBS's 60 Minutes for his ad campaigns promoting high-fructose corn syrup, and advocating against indoor smoking bans, against tighter drunk-driving standards, and most recently, against raising the minimum wage in venues nationwide.
As the New York Times outlined last year, Berman's think tank has no employees and is essentially indistinguishable from his ad firm Berman and Company, with the latter "billing" the former for its services. In DC and in major newspapers last year, Berman took out a slew of big ads, including, according to the Times, "one featuring a giant photograph of Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is a proponent of the [federal] minimum wage increase, that read, 'Teens Who Can’t Find a Job Should Blame Her.'" In the same PR blitz, he again pulled out the favored tactic that he described to 60 Minutes as "shooting the messenger," presenting a minimum wage increase recommendation as the work of Marxist economists.
The Times Square ad follows a board empowered by Gov. Cuomo recommending an increase of fast-food workers' minimum wage. Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi dismissed the latest volley in the battle over the $15 wage, telling the Daily News Berman's group is a "right-wing think tank" and that the increase will take the many fast-food workers among the state's 182,000 off of public assistance, saving taxpayer dollars.
"We support ending the backdoor public subsidy that allows fast-food corporations to keep profits high and wages low," he said.
The billboard's obvious tactic is to present fast-food as an entry-level job that lazy, privileged millennials would cruise along in forever if they scored the windfall of $15 an hour. As the Times reported back in 2013, this caricature doesn't seem to line up with reality:
These days, according to the National Employment Law Project [a low-wage worker advocacy group], the average age of fast-food workers is 29. Forty percent are 25 or older; 31 percent have at least attempted college; more than 26 percent are parents raising children.
This didn't stop ABC News10 from covering the ad with some value-added stenography, writing that it "[showcases] the unfairness and unintended consequences of the dramatic fast food wage hike that Cuomo’s wage board recommended last month."
According to MIT's living wage calculator, just covering expenses for a family of four with two working parents in the New York metro area requires both parents to make at least $18.91 an hour. Currently, the minimum wage is $8.75, set to increase to $9 next year, and the average New York service industry worker makes just $21,000 a year, the lowest of any profession surveyed.
Here are a handful of choice quotes from a presentation Berman gave to oil and gas industry operatives to pitch using PR as a tool to kneecap environmentalists and drill anywhere and everywhere, as reported by the Times:
- "Think of this as an endless war."
- "You can either win ugly or lose pretty."
- "I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to screw with the labor unions — that's my offense. I am just trying to figure out how I am going to reduce their brand."
- "Use humor to minimize or marginalize the people on the other side."
- "People always ask me one question all the time: 'How do I know that I won't be found out as a supporter of what you're doing?' We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don't know who supports us."
- "They characterize us in a campaign as being the guys with the black helicopters. And to some degree, that's true. We're doing stuff to diminish the other sides' ability to operate."
Posing a different kind of argument against the increase, which the state labor commissioner still has to approve, the Times recently noted that it would benefit 50,000 workers in the city, but 1.25 million will still make less than $15 an hour.