Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, left, and Joe Manchin (Photo credit: Zach Gibson and Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

This report was written by David Sirota, Andrew Perez, and Joel Warner.

Weeks after voting to kill a $15 minimum wage, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin will headline the national conference of the restaurant lobbying group that led the battle to block the wage increase and is fighting a separate Democratic measure to make it easier for workers to form unions. Both lawmakers have also recently raked in campaign cash from corporate interests that have been fighting a minimum wage increase.

Sinema and Manchin will join disgraced former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel next week in speeches at a conference held by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), according to the conference agenda. The NRA has been aggressively lobbying against Democrats’ proposed minimum wage hike and labor legislation.

Manchin and Sinema, who represent West Virginia and Arizona respectively, will be featured on panels entitled “Seeking Unity: Conversations on Finding Bipartisan Solutions.” The event is the NRA’s annual “public affairs conference,” which in Washington-speak means it is for lobbyists and focused on shaping legislation.

The conference event registration page says it “is an off the record event closed to press.” The schedule says it will also feature former George W. Bush spokesperson and Fox News personality Dana Perino.

Senators Added To Event After They Blocked $15 Wage

The two Democrats, who were not on the NRA’s original event schedule, have been working recently with Republicans to replace Democrats’ $15 minimum wage proposal with a lower wage — reportedly $11, which is lower than Arizona’s current minimum wage. It’s not clear yet whether their proposal, which hasn’t been released, would eliminate the lower subminimum wage for workers like restaurant servers who rely on tips.

Manchin and Sinema will each appear at the virtual conference for conversations with NRA vice president Sean Kennedy, who has been the public face of the opposition to federal minimum wage legislation.

“The Raise the Wage Act imposes an impossible challenge for the restaurant industry,” Kennedy said in a statement earlier this year. “A nationwide increase in the minimum wage will create insurmountable costs for many operators in states.”

Meanwhile, executives of the NRA’s own member restaurant chains — including Denny’s, McDonald’s, Domino’s and the Cheesecake Factory — have been telling their investors that they will not be significantly harmed by a higher minimum wage.

To the contrary, Denny’s chief financial officer, Robert Verostek, said in a February earnings call that California’s law raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2023 has been good for the diner chain’s business.

“As they've increased their minimum wage kind of in a tempered pace over that time frame, if you look at that time frame from us, California has outperformed the system,” Verostek said. “Over that time frame, they had six consecutive years of positive guest traffic — not just positive sales, but positive guest traffic — as the minimum wage was going up.”

PAC Cash From Corporate Interests

In the weeks after Sinema and Manchin cast their votes to block a $15 minimum wage, another group lobbying against minimum wage and labor legislation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, rewarded them with campaign contributions.

Last year, the Chamber awarded Sinema with their inaugural “Abraham Lincoln Leadership for America Award” as well as their “Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship.” Her Senate office noted in a press release that “Sinema was the only Democrat to win both awards.”

Both senators are also opposing calls for Democrats to eliminate the filibuster, a stand that will likely block Democrats’ landmark labor reform legislation, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, that would make it easier for workers to form unions.

According to The Intercept, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has told labor leaders that he will bring the PRO Act to the floor as soon as it has 50 cosponsors. Manchin and Sinema are two of only five Democrats who have yet to sign on.

Sinema recently received donations from political action committees for Barnes & Thornburg, Cozen O’Connor and Steptoe & Johnson — three law firms that advertise their services helping corporations halt union drives among workers. Data compiled by OpenSecrets show that during Sinema’s career, her seventh largest collective source of campaign money has been contributors from Snell & Wilmer, a law firm whose website says it has “advised clients and provided management training on lawful union avoidance strategies, strikes, union corporate campaigns, and litigation with unions.”

Manchin’s eighth largest collective source of campaign cash has been donors from Steptoe & Johnson, whose website says that “on behalf of some of the largest employers in the world, our highly regarded labor relations team handles collective bargaining, union organizing campaigns, representation elections, unfair labor practice charges and other [National Labor Relations Board] proceedings.”

Sinema became the public face of the Democrats’ failure to implement the minimum wage when she blocked Sen. Bernie Sanders’ already-doomed attempt to add the provision back into Democrats’ COVID-19 relief legislation with an overly dramatic thumbs-down.

Only a few years ago, Sinema was an outspoken proponent of a higher minimum wage, tweeting that an increase should be a “no brainer.”

Prior to that, she told a progressive group that she went into politics because she was angry that underprivileged people in her community “just weren't able to get past that place of poverty and dependence to a place of self-sufficiency and interdependence.”

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