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Koppell’s Living Wage Bill gets City Hall Hearing
The Riverdale Press
Adam Wisnieski

May 18, 2011
View the Original Article

Hundreds of supporters from the Bronx showed up to a May 12 City Council hearing to rally for passage of Councilman Oliver Koppell’s living wage bill.

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act — originally introduced last year by Mr. Koppell and Councilwoman Annabel Palma and reintroduced by them again in January — would require developers that receive taxpayer subsidies of more than $100,000 to pay workers $10 per hour with benefits, or $11.50 without.

Riverdalian Gene Binder, a retired schoolteacher and member of Northwest Bronx for Change, decided to make the trip downtown to show his support for the bill.

“There was a time when the U.S. could pride itself on rags to riches stories. Now, Horatio Alger is on life support,” he said.

Judging by the volume of response when the name of each of the boroughs was shouted to the crowd, the Bronx was the best represented.

Union members, Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, retail workers and other activists gathered across the street from 250 Broadway to chant and sing in support of the legislation. Members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Living Wage NYC, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and the Jewish Labor Committee joined together to support the bill.

As it stands, 31 of 51 council members have said they would vote for the legislation, but it is up to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to bring the bill to a vote. Ms. Quinn has not said where she stands on the issue.

Mr. Koppell said he would consider circumventing the usual process with a motion to discharge, which requires a majority vote and would bring the legislation to the floor, if Ms. Quinn does not do so on her own.

After speaking at the rally along with other council members, clergy and City Comptroller John Liu, Mr. Koppell said Ms. Quinn would be “foolish not to get on board” if she ever wants to run for citywide office.

Though the issue of wages affects the entire city, the bill was born in the Bronx out of the Kingsbridge Armory battle between Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in late 2009. Mr. Bloomberg supported the space being occupied by a mall developed by the Related Companies. But Mr. Diaz argued that development projects receiving taxpayer subsidies should have to offer living wage jobs. The project died when Mr. Diaz and the Bloomberg administration came to an impasse on living wages. Mr. Bloomberg has blamed the borough president for the fact that the Armory remains empty and vice versa.

Mr. Diaz claims Related Companies was willing to go through with the mall while agreeing to pay a living wage, but the administration did not want to set a precedent for future projects.

It was that fight that Mr. Koppell said inspired him to introduce the living wage bill.

Mr. Bloomberg has been vocally opposed to the bill, saying it will reduce the number of available jobs. Last year, he commissioned $1 million for a yet-to-be-released study, for which a summary was released on May 9. It came to the same conclusion.

Much of the back-and-forth at the hearing between the Economic Development Corporation and council members in favor of the bill surrounded the report. Proponents, led at the hearing by Chief of Staff of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Tokumbo Shobowale, referenced the report’s finding that a living wage mandate would kill job opportunities and increase “extreme poverty.” Mr. Shobowale said the study was “the best” and the “most comprehensive” study ever conducted on the subject.

Opponents said the report was “bogus,” “phony,” “a $1 million whitewash” and, as Mr. Diaz put it, “not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

But those opposed to the bill said other U.S. cities have been hurt by similar living wage mandates. While proponents said other U.S. cities are thriving because of such legislation.

Mr. Koppell and other council members who support the bill repeatedly said they were open to negotiation toward a compromise.

After Mr. Diaz testified, he walked over to one of the rooms filled with supporters listening to the hearing and waiting their turns to speak. He pumped his fist in the air and said, “We gotta keep pushing, We gotta keep pushing, alright?”