Living Wage Bill passes in the Big Apple

by
photo by Good Jobs New York

James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute at a press conference on the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.

What started out as an attempt to guarantee benefits to Bronx residents at a redeveloped armory over a decade ago found its way to City Hall Monday with the passage of Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act. The bill was sponsored by Bronx Council Members G. Oliver Koppell and Annabel Palma.

Efforts to redevelop the city-owned armory fell through in 2009 when the city prevented a developer from entering into a Community Benefits Agreement with the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. In response to that campaign and concerns regarding wages in city-subsidized developments, a new city-wide campaign for better wages took hold led by the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union and Living Wage NYC a coalition of community, civic and religious organizations.

The final version of the Living Wage bill is narrower than campaign organizers would have liked (tenants of subsidized project won’t be covered, for example). Still, supporters of the bill report it is the strongest living wage law in the country and assert this is only a first step to expand Living Wage ordinances in the city.

Information on the Fair Wages for New Yorkers bill can be found here, but the fundamentals are:

  • Commercial and Industrial firms receiving $1 million or more in discretionary subsidies and have gross revenue of $5 million or more would have to pay their employees at least $10.00 an hour or $11.50 if no health benefits are provided;
  • Developments on property sold by the city for more than $1 million below market value would be covered;
  • Manufacturers and nonprofit organizations would be exempt;
  • Tenants of subsidized firms (e.g., retail stores, restaurants) would be excluded.

On a worthwhile transparency note, the bill would require firms that receive more than $1 million in subsidies (whether or not a firm would be subject to the living wage requirement) to provide wage data for all employees in lower-wage sectors such as retail and restaurants. This goes beyond what is currently required in an already laudable transparency bill approved in December of 2010.

However, it is unclear whether this bill will go into effect. Last week, Mayor Bloomberg gave an address attacking wage requirements at subsidized firms and during a radio show compared them to Communism. Bloomberg has vowed to veto the bill and if that is overridden (as is expected) he will continue to fight it in the courts.

Regardless of the bill’s future, a victory lap is being taken by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose political dexterity has allowed her to use the issue advantageously as she positions herself to run for mayor next year, (Mayor Bloomberg is term-limited out of office). In the New York City Council, where bills generally only move forward with support of the Speaker, Quinn skillfully maneuvered the living wage bill through controversial waters. In the year ahead, irrespective of her audience, she can take credit with community and labor groups for her support of a campaign to help lift workers out of poverty and with the city’s business interests for curtailing the bill so much it would cover a relatively small portion of the city workforce.

Quinn has received both praise and criticism for walking out of a press conference celebrating the living wage bill when a heckler refused to apologize for calling Mayor Bloomberg a “Pharaoh”.

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