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Hundreds Rally For Higher Wages On Anniversary Of King's Death
The Huffington Post
George Warner

April 5, 2011
View the Original Article

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of New Yorkers rallied on the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination Monday night, calling for the passage of legislation aimed at raising wages for most workers at developments receiving public subsidies.

A group of more than 250 interfaith leaders, politicians, labor organizers and community members filled the Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, while another 400 met at the Bronx Pentecostal Deliverance Center, to advocate for the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act. The bill would mandate a $10 hourly wage -- or $11.50 without benefits -- at large, publicly-funded developments. Pay increases for workers at those sites would be tied to inflation to ensure their "living wage" status.

Although there are no citywide statistics on the average wage of employees at subsidized developments, a recent report [.pdf] on three city-supported developments found the five most common non-managerial jobs all paid less than $10 per hour. The job sites included a Fresh Direct Warehouse, which has received $2.2 million in city subsidies since 1999, and Yankee Stadium, which has been given "nearly $50 million in City tax breaks, more than $1.2 billion in tax‐exempt financing [...] and over $326 million in estimated city capital improvements," according to the report, jointly produced by Good Jobs New York, the Fiscal Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project.

"When we provide subsidies to developers and companies in the name of job creation, what type of jobs are we creating?" City Council Member Brad Lander said in a phone interview. The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act is "a no-brainer," he added: "It is about basic human dignity. It is economically smart. We have a scarce pot of those subsidies [and] it seems patently obvious to me that the best use of scarce dollars for job creation is to create jobs you can sustain your family on."

Michael Valdez, a Fordham University student who used to work as a cashier at Yankee Stadium, said in an interview shortly before his speech at Monday's rally in Brooklyn that his time at Yankee Stadium "was awful" -- at $8.50 an hour and without benefits. And since shifts were frequently overbooked, he said, "You would have to come in and wait two or three hours before you could even clock in [and] if they got enough workers, they would send everybody else home."

"Here in New York, living is so expensive. With these jobs that offer [so little], you definitely cannot support a family." Valdez added. "Even as a college student, it is difficult."

Living Wage NYC, the umbrella coalition that has been organizing the push for the wage bill for the past year, has been largely supported by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. In a speech at Monday night's rally in Brooklyn, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum evoked King's legacy, recounting how King traveled to Memphis in 1968 to join sanitation workers "in a march for living wage jobs" to "preach the message that no job holder should live in poverty" on the day before he was assassinated.

"More than 40 years later, the need for living wage jobs is more urgent than ever," Appelbaum said. "These companies take, but all they give back is dead-end, low-wage jobs. As a city, we can and must do better. It is our moral imperative."

The two rallies come as the City Council gears up for its first hearing on the living wage legislation sometime in late April.

Currently, a majority of Council members support the bill, but it is unclear whether Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who largely controls the body, will support its passage. Quinn has been courting business interests in advance of an expected 2013 mayoral run.

At the Brooklyn rally, Rev. Robert Waterman of the Antioch Baptist Church offered a veiled swipe at Quinn. "City Council, you need to listen up. City Council Members, let's stop dealing with personal ambitions preventing you from standing up because you are looking for your next step up," Waterman said.

Earlier Monday, Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the civil rights leader, offered his support for the living wage bill. According to the New York Observer, King's endorsement came after a heavy push by RWDSU for his support.

"People see something very wrong happening," King said in a statement. "Corporations getting richer from tax subsidies offered in the name of economic development yet making people poorer with low-wage jobs."

Some critics, including a coalition of local chambers of commerce, have said the bill would seriously harm businesses.

But Maisha Morales, who owned a small religious supply store in Albee Square Mall in Brooklyn before it was redeveloped by the Bloomberg administration, contested that idea. "As a former small business owner who was able to pay living wages, I believe there is no reason why corporations and big box retail stores can't do the same." Morales said at Monday's Brooklyn rally. "Especially when they are usually the ones being given these tax incentives in these new developments."