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Ruben Diaz Jr. leads charge for Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act
New York Daily News
Juan Gonzalez

November 23, 2011
View the Original Article


Bronx borough president on side of worker

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. waited for this moment for more than two years.

The moment the Other New York served notice to the developers and landlords and their friends in government that our city's economic policies must change.

Almost every day, a new report reminds us that the gap between rich and poor is worse than ever.

For two months now, the kids of Occupy Wall Street have galvanized national attention on that gap.

So here was Diaz leading the charge Tuesday, as two camps lined up in one of those classic battles over a City Council bill that suddenly becomes a symbol of something far bigger.

The last fight like this was October 2008, when Mayor Bloomberg and Council Speaker Chris Quinn maneuvered to thumb their noses at the will of the voters and overturn term limits.

This time, the legislation is called the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.

It boils down to this: any company seeking more than $1 million in tax exemptions or other forms of public assistance for a development project must agree to pay workers on that project at least $10 an hour. That's $2.75 more than the state's $7.25 minium wage.

The bill has the backing of a majority of the City Council. A recent poll shows 78% of the public supports it. Yet Quinn, who dreams of succeeding Bloomberg as mayor, refuses to call it up for a vote.

Bloomberg, to no one's surprise, strongly opposes the bill. His aides claim it will send developers fleeing and kill thousands of jobs.

Ten bucks an hour, we should note, is still a poverty wage for a family of four. Other big cities, like San Francisco, have required as much as $12 an hour for a decade, and they haven't collapsed. In Los Angeles, it's $10.42.

Back in 2002, Bloomberg backed a $10-an-hour minimum for contractors who provide home care aides and Head Start workers to the city.

And in 2008, when the mayor wanted the City Council to approve a proposed $3 billion Willets Point development project, his deputy mayor then, Robert Lieber, made such a deal with several labor unions.

Under that deal, the city would require that all construction, maintenance and security jobs at Willets Point pay “prevailing” wages — far higher than $10 an hour.

As for retail jobs, Lieber promised to “view favorably” Willets Point proposals that “maximize” the number of “living wage jobs.” He even specified $10 an hour for a living wage.

Because of those promises, the unions backed the plan and the City Council approved Willets Point.

But shortly after that, Diaz dared to oppose Bloomberg's plan to have the giant Related Companies redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.

Diaz wanted assurances that Related's retail tenants would pay $10 an hour. When City Hall refused, Diaz defeated the project — infuriating every developer in town.

How dare a young politician from the Bronx thwart Michael Bloomberg and the mighty Related Companies? And how dare the retail workers union join with Diaz in stopping the armory project?

So this year, when the city's Economic Development Corporation finally issued its request for proposals for Willets Point, the “living wage” part of Lieber's 2008 promise for retail workers had mysteriously disappeared.

And this week, the business alliance opposed to the living wage bill is funding ads with a picture of the empty Bronx armory and the slogan: “Stop Killing Good Jobs!”

Diaz and the bill's supporters have bent over backwards to make signficant changes. The bill now targets only the biggest development projects. Still, Quinn refuses to say whether she'll back it, or even allow it to come to a vote.

Quinn must decide whether government should be about subsidizing wage inequality or closing the gap.

jgonzalez@nydailynews.com