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NYC Living Wage Campaign Invokes Spirit of Dr. King
The Examiner
Billy Wharton

January 13, 2011
View the Original Article


The spirit of the Civil Rights movement was on full display tonight in Harlem as hundreds of people turned out for a “Mass Meeting for Living Wages” at the Convent Baptist Church. The meeting was billed as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the next step in the struggle to pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act. For one evening the powerful coalition between clergy and labor that pushed the civil rights agenda forward was reunited.

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act is sponsored by Living Wage NYC, a coalition of religious, labor and political groups. The Act is working its way through the City Council and calls for any business that receives public funds, either in the form of contracts or subsidies, to pay employees a living wage. The wage would amount to $10 plus benefits or $11.50 for companies who do not offer benefits.

Such a salary structure contrasts sharply with the current reality of workers employed by companies receiving City subsidies. One such person, Linda, a worker at a fast-food restaurant in Times Square, currently receives an hourly wage of $7.25. This low pay has forced her onto a couch in a relative’s house, while her restaurant pulled in $2 million dollars in revenue during the holiday season alone. And, the $7.25 reflects a recent 20 cent increase for Linda after a year on the job and a positive job review.

Reverend Dr. Jesse T. Williams, the host pastor from Convent Baptist led off the evening with a rousing speech that examined the role of the church inside of the larger struggle for social justice. It was, Rev. Williams stated, the task of the church to help people up when they fall down. However, it is also the responsibility of those interested in social justice to find out who is pushing people over the cliff. The crowd was emboldened by these words and the mood was set for the evening.

Dr. Ray Rivera of the Latino Pastoral Center presented the movement for a Living Wage as a “bridge movement.” The act was meant, Rivera argued, to bridge the growing chasm between rich and poor in the City. It would offer the possibility for a more just city and, he continued, even some redemption for politicians such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg who have ignored what Rivera called, “these parts of the City.”

Despite the large crowd, the Act faces serious opposition. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has been slow to respond to repeated requests to hold a hearing on the act. Organizers asked that participants put pressure on Quinn to do so.

Mayor Bloomberg has been more openly hostile to the possibility of enforcing a living wage. When asked to evaluate a similar proposal presented in the Northwest Bronx, he responded in an unusually vitriolic manner, “Government should not be in the business of doing that [setting wage levels]. The last government that tried that doesn't exist anymore. That was the Soviet Union.”

There are also several City Council members who have not yet supported the Act. One problematic character in the North Bronx is City Councilman James Vacca. In December, Vacca’s aid claimed that the Councilman was not yet committed to the bill, but was reviewing it. Some pressure from constituents here in the Bronx might help speed the process along. Living Wage NYC organizers encouraged supporters to call Vacca at (718) 931-1721 and ask to support the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.

For one night at least the spirit of Dr. King was alive and well in New York City. The most significant aspect of the event was that it was not just an empty rhetorical call to remember King. The Living Wage campaign is a real movement making demands for justice for working people in New York City. Just the kind of campaign that a figure like King might have thrown his considerable moral weight behind.