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Grassroots Movement for Living Wage grows in Harlem
New York Amsterdam News
Stuart Appelbaum

March 17, 2011
View the Original Article

On Jan. 14, a huge crowd of 2,000 activists joined clergy, elected officials and community leaders at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and call for progressive action that would further one of the great civil rights leader's lifetime causes: the creation of good jobs to help improve the lives of the working poor.

It was an electrifying evening, and one that united the community behind the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which would require developers who receive taxpayer-funded subsidies to create living wage jobs. Retail stores in shopping malls, concession sellers at stadiums and ticker sellers at amusement parks, like the redeveloped Coney Island, would all be paid a living wage since taxpayers in the communities not only helped make the developments happen, but also helped create the jobs.

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act is proposed legislation that directly affects the quality of life of those who live in the community served by the West 144th Street Church and all low-wage employees in New York City. The crowd at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church made "Pass the Bill" its rallying cry and the enthusiasm on display at the January event was a clear sign of the growing grassroots momentum for the bill in Harlem and other communities around the city. People are catching on the plain truth that what New Yorkers need are good jobs that lift communities up, rather than low-wage jobs that keep workers and their families mired in poverty.

Over the past few decades, the super wealthy have become unfathomably richer, while the real earning power of everyone else has become weaker. The middle class has seen its average inflation adjusted hourly wage decline by more than 7 percent since 1976. In contrast, the richest 1 percent of earners has seen its share of total U.S. income grow from 8.9 percent to an astounding 23.5 percent during the same time period.

Compounding the problem in African-American communities is the fact the African American workers continue to earn far less than whites, according to statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau. At the per capita income of $18, 054 in 2008, African-American earnings were just 57.9 percent of the $28,502 for whites.

In New York City, communities find themselves hard-pressed to see the effects of the economic recovery being touted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While Wall Street's profits might be up, New Yorkers are still feeling the pain of the economic downturn. The mayor's own office just quietly released a study showing 1.8 million New York City residents are on food stamps. With New York City's working poor still struggling to get by on wages that are unreasonably low, it's clear that we need to change to help lift our communities.

Passing this legislation is the economically smart thing to do, and it's that morally right thing to do. The time has come to do away with the creation of poverty wage jobs through public subsidies. It's time that taxpayers get their money's worth when it comes to investing in private development, in the form of jobs that can help New Yorkers build lives for themselves and their families . It's time for the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.

Stuart Appelbaum is President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.