The Living Wage Bill would ensure that every business that receives subsidies from the City, provides its workers with a living wage. This would amount to $10 an hour with benefits or $12 an hour without. The Living Wage NYC coalition is organizing the campaign.
The city-wide struggle grew out of a smaller confrontation at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Northwest Bronx. Here, corporations sought to set up shops, but refused to guarantee living wage jobs. They claimed that such a deal in one neighborhood would have repercussions in other parts of the City. Living Wage organizers responded by launching a grassroots effort to turn the entire city into a Living Wage zone.
The high point of the evening came as host Rev. Que English read from a letter issued by Martin Luther King III. In it, the son of the slain Civil Rights leader praised organizers for quickly developing “the largest citywide living wage movement in the country.” The campaign was, he stated, “continuing my father’s unfinished work of economic justice.”
The Living Wage campaign has indeed advanced since January’s meeting in a Harlem church in celebration of the birth of Dr. King. A once unresponsive City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has issued a public promise to hold a hearing on the issue. The hearing is the next step in a process that will lead to a Council vote. Speakers tweaked Quinn for engaging in a bit of political foot-dragging though they remained positive about the eventual outcome of the hearings.
Less kind words were saved for Councilman James Vacca. Vacca holds the dubious distinction of being the only member of the Council in the Bronx to refuse to sign on to the Bill. The event was held close to his district and participants were encouraged to sign letters demanding that Vacca sign on. A contingent will go to his office at 3040 East Tremont Ave. on April 11th at 4 pm to deliver the letters.
As always, one of the most powerful parts of the event came when workers in low wage jobs were given the microphone. One, Jeremy Montalvo, discussed the degrading treatment heaped upon low wage workers. He recalled a boss who routinely threw his wages onto the floor and demanded that Montalvo retrieve them. The young worker eventually sunk into a deep depression that led to substance abuse because of such mistreatment on the worksite. The thought of a Living Wage mandate enlivened him.
Equally powerful testimony came from Kimberley Ortiz who represented the Retail Action Project. Ortiz described her work at the concession stand in the Statue of Liberty where she earned $8.25 an hour for a 12-hour day. After five years on the job and a promotion to Assistant Manager, her wages stood at only $9 an hour. As a result. she shares a two bedroom apartment with her mother, father and two small children. Using the symbol of the Statue of Liberty, she asked the poignant question – “Does this sound like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”
All roads lead to a showdown with Bloomberg – who was described by one speaker as “the Pharaoh.” The Mayor has promised to veto whatever Living Wage legislation comes out of the City Council. However, City Councilman Oliver Koppell countered this by guaranteeing that the Council would override that veto. In between, one can expect this movement that is bubbling in seemingly every borough in the city to converge onto City Hall.
Perhaps the mood of the evening was best summarized by spoken word artist Marshall “Soulfull” Jones. Jones was playing with the notion of New York City as the land of opportunity for the rich. “You need us,” he stated firmly “for your opportunity.” The crowd exploded at this – a call to use a demand for justice in order to recognize workers who were once invisible.
Honor was certainly done to the legacy of Dr. King tonight. The passage of a Living Wage ordinance in New York City would help fulfill a part of the struggle for freedom and democracy that he dedicated his life to.