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Crowds Support Bronx Pols’ Call for a Living Wage
The Riverdale Press
Adam Wisnieski

January 19, 2011
View the Original Article


It’s a new year, which means Councilman Oliver Koppell and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. resuming their fight for a living wage bill in New York City.

At a “Mass Meeting for Living Wages” at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church on 145th Street in Manhattan on Jan. 13, Mr. Koppell and Mr. Diaz were among the elected officials who joined religious leaders of all faiths to show their support for the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act (introduced by Mr. Koppell and Councilwoman Annabel Palma), which has been amended and was resubmitted to the City Council last week.

The church was filled beyond capacity with latecomers forced to stand in the back or hold the door open so those standing in the lobby could hear the speakers inside.

After watching videos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and listening to a rousing introduction by the church’s Rev. Jesse T. Williams Jr., Mr. Diaz started off a string of speeches.

At “a little place called the Kingsbridge Armory, this debate heated up,” Mr. Diaz said. “It was there where they told us in the Bronx we know what’s good and best for you ... it was there where the Bronx told them, uh uh uh.”

Mr. Diaz asked all those from the Bronx to stand up and cheer and they did. A large contingent from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which supported the borough president in the Armory debate, also made some noise.

“It was there where we said, ‘you know what, you can take your project and others like it and shove it!’” Mr. Diaz said, garnering a thunderous applause.

In late 2009, Mr. Diaz was the driving force behind the battle over a development proposal for the Kingsbridge Armory. Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported a mall that would be developed by the Related Companies, but Mr. Diaz argued that development projects receiving taxpayer subsidies should be mandated to offer “living wage jobs” — defined as paying at least $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without.

The plan fell through when the City Council voted against the plan and shot down the mayor’s veto.

Inspired by Mr. Diaz’s fight for living wages in the Armory, Mr. Koppell and Ms. Palma introduced the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act in May. The bill would guarantee living wages for workers on projects that receive a certain amount of government money or taxpayer subsidies and has sparked a clamorous call and vicious debate over its passage.

Mr. Koppell said in his almost 40 years of public service, the rally was the biggest assembly in support of legislation he had ever seen. He also said 29 out of 51 City Council members currently sponsored the legislation.

“It is really a very moving thing that this fight to improve the living conditions of people has become, if you will, a religious mission, and something that is very meaningful and important. It is of course directly relevant today as we think about Dr. Martin Luther King, who combined a commitment to religion and a commitment to justice in the workplace,” Mr. Koppell said.

He said there was some opposition to holding a public hearing on the bill, but that he will insist upon one. Feeding off the energy of the crowd, Mr. Koppell waved his arms in the air and declared, “I can tell you tonight and I can assure you tonight that I will insist that there be a hearing on this bill!”

The entire audience stood for Mr. Koppell and started to chant. Many supporters, each with a “Living Wage Now” sign in their hands started to stomp their feet.

Other speakers at the rally included City Comptroller John Liu, Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Lillian Roberts, the executive director of DC 37 and Councilwoman Inez Dickens. After the speeches, the assembly sang and prayed together with some of the City’s religious leaders, including Rev. Michael Walrond, Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid, Pastor Anita Burson, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik.

The debate will continue as the City Council mulls the amended bill, which now says that small businesses with less than $1 million a year in revenue, not-for-profit organizations and certain employers on affordable housing projects would be exempt from the mandate.

A $1 million study commissioned by the Bloomberg administration, which hired Boston-based Charles River Associates to report on the affects of instituting a mandate on wages for development projects, is expected to be released soon.

Mr. Diaz, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Controller John Liu, who also spoke at the rally, have protested what they see as the study’s bias.