It was standing room only at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem on a recent night. Organizers said nearly 2,000 people were in attendance as clergy, elected officials and union leaders invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to ignite support for a so-called living wage bill. The controversial bill sets a higher minimum wage for businesses receiving government subsidies.
A church choir last Thursday night warmed up the crowd and a big banner that read "Living Wage Now" hung over the pulpit. A video of Martin Luther King Jr. was played and congressman Charlie Rangel compared the push for a living wage bill to his marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.
"I am telling you that I had no idea that that march was making history, but I want each and every one of you that are here tonight to take a deep breath and realize you are making history," Rangel said to much applause.
Clergy members continued the civil rights theme. Convent Avenue's Pastor Jesse T. Williams Jr. told the crowd that it was time to get to the root of poverty instead of just treating the symptoms. "This is a moral issue to us", he said. "And we want everyone to know tonight that we're not going to stop until a living wage is a reality for the people of this city."
The living wage bill would require any businesses receiving more than $100,000 in subsidies - whether in the form of a cash grant, a tax abatement or other incentives - to pay workers a minimum of $10 an hour with medical benefits or $11.50 without them.
The wage would also be subject to cost of living increases. This isn't the first time city leaders have tried to push for tying wages to subsidies. About a year ago, the city council refused to green light a development project at the Bronx's Kingsbridge Armory after the Bloomberg Administration refused to accept wage requirements.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz lead the charge for higher wages at Kingsbridge.
"It was there where they told us it doesn't matter if we get tens of millions of dollars in government subsidies, and it doesn't matter if we are multi-billionaires, you guys just accept poverty wage jobs, " Diaz said. Ultimately, the community refused.
It's unclear how far this fight will go. The bill's main sponsor, Bronx councilman Oliver Koppell, said 29 out of 51 council members support it and he'd demand it get a hearing. So far, council speaker Christine Quinn won't comment on the legislation. Earlier this year, she refused to push forward a bill guaranteeing paid sick days for certain workers. And the Mayor hasn't changed his mind even after amendments were added that would exempt certain small businesses and non-profits from wage requirements. At a recent press conference Bloomberg said, "I don't think the government should be involved in setting wages and once you start down that slope it's a very slippery slope."
The real estate industry also opposes the bill. Under the legislation, developers of shopping centers, for instance, would need to find tenants willing to comply with wage requirements. John Doyle, a senior Vice President at the Real Estate Board of New York said the bill would make new developments less competitive with old developments not bound by wage requirement rules.
"Only a fool would try to say that paying somebody $7 or $7.75 is preferable to paying somebody $10 but that's beyond the control of the development community. That's what the retailers pay and the retailers get to pick where they are going to locate," Doyle said.
Linda Archer knows first hand what retailers pay. She was among the speakers at Convent Avenue church and said she makes $7.25 working at a fast food chain in Times Square and even though she's middle aged, she can't afford a place on her own.
"Right now, I sleep in the living room of a relative's one bedroom apartment. I am the working poor. My job does not allow me to be self sufficient," Archer said. In ending her remarks, the fast food worker called for the passage of the bill, saying jobs like hers are important to New York City too.