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Clergy Members March on City Council to Demand 'Living Wage' Bill
Jill Colvin

November 17, 2010
View the Original Article

CITY HALL — Nearly 100 clergy members marched silently to the City Council chambers Wednesday to demand that officials pass a bill that would force developers who get city cash to pay workers a so-called "living wage."

Priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders began the silent procession at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Barclay Street, where they gathered in a rallying prayer for The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.

The bill would force developers who receive subsidies from the City's Economic Development Corporation and Industrial Development Agency to pay their workers at least $10 an hour — significantly higher than minimum wage.

The projects affected would include everything from the new Goldman Sacks Building to the redevelopment of Yankee Stadium, advocates said.

"We're standing here in solidarity with the working poor in the city of New York to demand that a living wage be passed by the City Council," said Rev. Jesse Williams, senior pastor at Harlem's Convent Avenue Baptist Church.

"If developers benefit from our tax dollars, they should pay at least a living wage," he said while marching past City Hall.

Critics, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have warned that raising minimum wages — especially now — would hurt the City, causing developers to take jobs elsewhere.

But the clergy members framed the debate as a moral obligation and said something has to be done.

Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid, who leads the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, said he hears complaints every day from community members who are struggling to make ends meet.

"It's a tremendous problem," he said. "People are constantly saying that they need to earn more, not just so they can live well, but so they can live."

Doug Cunningham, who leads the New Day United Methodist Church in the Bronx, said that low wages force his congregants to take second jobs, leaving kids home alone to raise themselves on the streets.

"It's a moral issue and it's an urgent issue,” Cunningham said, adding that "it's absolutely ridiculous that in 2010 New York City does not have a living wage law."

Following the service, the group, dressed in colorful robes and other religious garb, stopped traffic as they marched from the church to the Emigrant Savings Bank on Chambers Street, where the City Council has been holding its monthly meetings while City Hall is under renovation.

The group carried more than five thousand palm cards signed by their congregants urging officials to support the bill.

Clergy members filed through the bank's metal detectors to deliver their stacks as the meeting was about to begin, while others gathered on the Tweed Courthouse steps.

They also delivered a letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn urging her to introduce the bill.

Quinn has not yet taken a position on the issue, a spokeswoman said again Wednesday — a fact many have been focused on since she killed a mandatory sick leave bill last month.

Quinn's decision was praised by the business community, but drew fire from labor advocates, who accused her of turning her back on her base.

Bronx City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell, one of the bill's lead sponsors, urged others to join.

"When the government gets involved in subsidizing projects, we should at least expect people who work in those projects earn a living wage," he said.

He also dismissed fears that it could kill jobs.

"We're talking about a very modest requirement," he said.

The city has commissioned a $1 million study about the impact of wage requirements on the city funded by the Economic Development Corporation, EDC spokeswoman Julie Wood said. The results are expected next year.

The coalition plans to hold a city-wide "day of action" on Martin Luther King Jr. day in January, 2011.