To a few hundred New York workers laboring for $8 or $9 an hour, a living wage bill recently passed by the city council means a raise, a few dollars more a week to help feed their families.
To billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, it's a wedge to open the door to communism. That's right -- the mayor told a local radio program that requiring businesses that get taxpayer subsidies to pay their workers a little bit more is just like a centrally planned economy. “The last time we really had a big managed economy was the USSR, and that didn’t work out so well,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg is just fine with handing over millions of New Yorkers' dollars in taxpayer subsidies to companies that threaten to flee the city -- no complaints about “free market” capitalism when it's wealthy real estate developers getting the dough. Requiring those businesses that are happily slurping at the public trough to pay their workers a dollar or two more an hour, though, is just opening the door to Stalin.
In addition, Bloomberg has been willing to support a statewide minimum wage increase -- so it's not really that he opposes workers making a little bit more as much as he's opposed to admitting that businesses that get public money have an obligation to the public. He's opposed to admitting that there's nothing “free market” about any of it.
No wonder a rally in support of the living wage bill was interrupted by a heckler calling him “Pharoah Bloomberg”—the reference to “Pharoah” making workers labor for low wages on taxpayer-funded projects seems apt, as the world's 20th richest man has vowed to sue to prevent the living wage ordinance from going into effect.
“Mayor Bloomberg is in fact taking the position that the immense buying power of the city as well as its prominent role in economic development should be used to milk private sector workers,” Mark Price, a labor economist who testified in 2009 before the New York City Council over a prevailing wage bill, told AlterNet. “The idea that the government can be used to do this to workers is a throwback to the Gilded Age when robber barons ruthlessly accumulated wealth and power at the expense of workers.”
But as the economy remains stalled and companies that pay poverty wages continue to get huge subsidies from cities and states (like New York's FreshDirect, which we recently reported is pocketing $129 million in handouts and is exempt from the new living wage rule), activists around the country are pushing for living wages in cities, on college campuses, and in tandem with pushes to raise the minimum wage.
What's a Living Wage, Anyway?
Michael Valdez used to work at Yankee Stadium, and as part of New York Communities for Change's campaign for the living wage, he told his story many times over. He told AlterNet, “They would schedule more cashiers than they needed, so in order to work that day, you would have to come on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you pass by Yankee Stadium, you see a line, you have to stand in that line. You're on this line for two or three hours, you definitely don't get paid for that. Me and at least 20 other employees have been turned back and sent home. They'll say 'come a little earlier tomorrow.'”
All this was for the princely sum of around $9 an hour, more than the state and federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour -- which made the job attractive to people like Valdez, who's working his way through college -- but certainly not enough to live on in New York. Valdez, who also worked at the Bronx Gateway Center Mall, another tax-subsidized development, noted that his pay wasn't enough to cover his books and other college expenses. “I couldn't fathom how a family would live on that paycheck,” he said.
And it couldn't, according to Penn State University's Living Wage Calculator, which calculates that one adult supporting only herself, working full-time, would need an hourly wage of $11.86 to survive in the Bronx. One adult with one child would need to make $19.19 an hour.
New York's new living wage rule, if it goes into effect, wouldn't even get there. “Under the terms of the legislation, any private development project directly accepting $1 million or more in taxpayer subsidies must pay employees a living wage of $10/hour with supplemental health benefits or $11.50/hour without benefits,” Living Wage NYC reported. It'd be a raise for workers like Valdez, but still not enough to really live on, let alone support a family.
So what do living wage laws do? “These laws are very different in intent from minimum wage laws which seek to establish a wage floor for the most vulnerable workers throughout the entire economy,” Mark Price explained. Instead of a minimum for all, living wage laws “are grounded in the idea that the public sector should set a good example--and discourage low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity competition--not just when it employs workers directly but also when it contracts with firms in the private sector.”
In other words, the city shouldn't be subsidizing companies with taxpayer dollars to create jobs—and then turning a blind eye when those jobs keep city workers in poverty.
Bloomberg and his wealthy friends' fierce opposition to the bill, which would, after Quinn's downward revisions, only cover a few hundred workers, is probably more ideological than practical. “The mayor and the real estate community can live more readily with the minimum wage because it's not tying strings to the development process,” explained Paul Sonn, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project. They're objecting to the idea, not that workers should make enough to live on, but that companies that get massive handouts from the city or state have any responsibility to the people whose taxes they're pocketing.
Yet around the country, activists are winning wage increases for workers based on just that idea. In Long Beach, California, backers of a living wage for hotel workers (including UNITE HERE and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) have gathered enough signatures to get their proposal on November's ballot. If it passes, it would require hotels with more than 100 rooms to pay their workers $13 an hour.
“Long Beach voters understand that when workers make a living wage, the whole community benefits,” Sonya Clark, a Long Beach resident who gathered signatures, said at a press conference. “They have money left over to visit a local restaurant or take their kids to the movies, to really participate in the local economy instead of relying on social services.”
Price pointed out that both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have both in recent years enacted prevailing wage laws for service workers employed by city contractors—many of whom had previously paid well below the local wage scale.
And just this winter, students at the University of Virginia went on hunger strike in support of a living wage for workers on their campus, taking another step in what's been a 14-year campaign for justice for low-wage service workers.
Reviving a Movement?
As Stephanie Luce reported, a lot has happened over the past couple of decades since the living wage framework was born. More than 125 cities and counties enacted living wage ordinances, three cities have raised their minimum wage, and we've seen state and federal minimum wages go up. Eight states indexed their minimum wage to inflation, and activists are working for the same in 10 more.
“We really did create both the kind of public currency, the phrase 'living wage' that is so, so popular and in all respects has expressed the frustration with low wages,” Jen Kern, the minimum wage campaign coordinator at NELP and a longtime living wage organizer, told AlterNet. “We created these policy ideas and tactics, going to a city council, the paid sick days or are now using these. We created the idea of using public money as leverage for labor standards.”
The movement tapered off a bit toward the end of the 2000s, mostly because so many victories had been won, Kern noted. But now activists are reviving the tactics and applying them differently, often more narrowly, to specific industries or locations, to economic development spending in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where politicians talk big about bringing jobs to town but remain quiet about the quality of those jobs.
As Luce noted, many of the living wage campaigns (including the current one in Long Beach) are tied to union organizing campaigns, and unions have used them to create broader community coalitions, bringing in people like the hunger-striking students in Virginia or the faith community that was such a strong part of New York's campaign.
The Great Recession has pushed wages downward dramatically. NELP found last summer that 73 percent of the jobs that had been created since the so-called economic recovery began have been low-wage jobs, paying less than $13.52 an hour. The rebirth of a nationwide movement for a living wage couldn't come at a better time—and it looks like Occupy might be getting in on the act. A new Web site is calling for June 20 to be a “global day of festival to demand a universal living wage.”
“Policy makers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and now a majority of the New York City Council have come to understand that the pleas for jobs that rise up from their neighborhoods are not pleas for a 60-hour workweek in two or three part-time jobs that leave children unattended and barely pay the rent, but pleas for one good job with a decent wage and benefits,” Price said.