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RIHA Column: Freedom of Speech has a Cost

By Dale J. Venturini, President & CEO, RI Hospitality Association 

Dale J. Venturini, President and CEO of Rhode Island Hospitality Industry Association.

Dale J. Venturini, President and CEO of Rhode Island Hospitality Industry Association.

I’ve written extensively about the hospitality industry’s ongoing fight with an organized movement from out of state … we are outnumbered and being outspent in this highly-divisive battle. While these groups go by many names depending on what part of the country you’re in, their core agenda is the same –raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, eliminate the federal tip credit to bring tipped employees up to existing minimum wage, and force employers to provide mandatory paid sick leave.

In Rhode Island, we’ve seen a host of legislation bandied about in the state house. Our membership has and will continue to testify strongly against it. While we’ve always played by the rules, chosen our words carefully, and have never personally attacked the opposition, we have not been as fortunate in return.

It seems that every time a hospitality owner voices an opinion against the opposition’s point of view in traditional or social media, he or she is systematically attacked. We’ve had members be accused of racism, sexism, and worse. The opposition uses social media and non-traditional media platforms to blast personal attacks against anyone who opposes their agenda. Free speech is really only free when the message aligns with what the opposition says. If not, the gloves come off.

Sitting in recent legislative hearings in Rhode Island’s House Labor Committee, we heard the opposition testify that restaurateurs are thieves, only care about themselves and money, and essentially vilify them. I find it so hard to understand how on one hand our hospitality industry is lauded for its excellence and used as an economic driver and tourism stimulator, and on the other, accused of the worst types of behavior against employees.

We watched one of the bill’s sponsors walk the opposition into the hearing room, filling it with those in favor of his legislation, while our members were removed and turned away to overflow rooms in different parts of the state house. As we sat watching the hearings on televisions, we saw members of the opposition come down to take photos of our members, lurk in the back of our area and generally hang around in the hopes of intimidating our group.

Again, when did free speech become not free? Why is the hospitality industry vilified and viewed with such disdain? Our members by and large are the mom and pop shops … restaurateurs who do their best to make a living from small margins, to take care of their employees, who they view as family, and to continue creating jobs and strengthening the economy.

I watched as one of our members was attacked for driving a nice car. The opposition apparently doesn’t believe he deserves to. This man put himself through college by being a fry cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken. He started off with a part-time job and through very hard work, he was able to move up in the restaurant industry. Now, he is a part owner of a multi-state restaurant company. He still works six days a week and his work ethic has not changed as the decades have passed and as his success has grown. Does he not deserve to drive a nice car or go on vacation? Does he not deserve to own a home? His company employs thousands of people with good jobs. Thousands of people who likely started off with more than him when he began this journey in our industry 30 years ago.

Why does the opposition feel that tipped employees, who already make well above minimum wage on average, should be entitled to make even more money? Why should everyone simply benefit without putting in the time or work?

America is a democracy with a free economy. The harder we work and the more we want success, the better the opportunities that come to us.

A veteran of more than 25 years in the hospitality industry, Venturini is considered by many to be the voice of the industry in the state of Rhode Island. She has been instrumental in improving the industry’s educational and training programs in the state, as well as enhancing the bottom line of the business she represents. Venturini splits her time between the office and the State House, a constant presence for her membership.

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