In an exhaustive hearing last week, the council spent nearly five hours debating the details of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, proposed last year by two Bronx Council members at the behest of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. Both opponents and supporters of the bill testified their cases to Council Speaker Christine Quinn — who largely controls the fate of the legislation — though the two sides, ultimately, found little grounds for an agreement.
“Some of the concerns expressed by some of the so-called opponents were greatly exaggerated,” said Councilman Oliver Koppell, who sponsored the bill with colleague Annabel Palma. “We have to review what we have, and perhaps make some small adjustments, but the overall bill is sound.”
The bill’s sponsors have already amended the legislation from its original version in response to criticism received during its first public hearing last spring. The revised bill narrows the criteria for the projects that would have to comply with the wage mandate ($10 an hour with health benefits or $11.50 without) to developments receiving city tax breaks of $1 million or more, up from the $100,000 proposed in the original version. The amended bill also exempts manufacturing companies, commercial tenants in affordable housing projects, and small businesses earning less than $5 million in revenue.
It became clear during last week’s hearing, however, that the bill’s recent adjustments have done little to sway its opponents.
“Even with its modifications, this is bad legislation,” said Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.
A coalition of the city’s business interests and trade unions launched a counter-campaign against the bill this month, called Putting New Yorkers to Work, complete with a website and paid advertisements. Their main argument, illuminated in the testimony of several speakers during the Council hearing, is that a living wage mandate would kill new businesses and jobs and devastate the city’s economy — an argument held by Mayor Bloomberg.
The bill’s supporters, a coalition of faith leaders, nonprofits and elected officials who have been campaigning for over a year now under the name Living Wage NYC, spent much of the hearing refuting those assertions. Experts from other cities that have wage mandates, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, phoned in to testify to the success of the laws in their respective cities.
Both sides have repeatedly referenced the Kingsbridge Armory to bolster their arguments. In 2009, the City Council—pressed by a coalition of Bronx community leaders and Borough President Diaz—killed plans for a shopping mall at the long-vacant building because the developer of the project, Related Companies, refused to agree to a living wage mandate, despite being poised to receive tens of millions of dollars from the city in the form of tax breaks.
Living wage opponents point to the some 2,000 jobs lost when the Armory project was quelled as evidence that the bill would, indeed, stifle economic development.
“The Kingsbridge Armory remains vacant because of the living wage mandate. Those jobs were killed because of this wage mandate,” Jack Kittle, political director of District Council No. 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, testified at last week’s hearing.
The bill’s supporters, however, paint the Armory as the birthplace of the citywide movement for fair wages, and proof of the Bloomberg administration’s strict pro-business agenda.
“We rescued our community from what would have become a poverty wage center,” Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, who heads the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, said at a rally in Harlem the night before the Council hearing. “Let’s be very clear: it was Bloomberg who killed those jobs.”
As the argument between the two sides continues to intensify, Quinn has remained neutral. As Speaker, she has the ability to kill a bill by refusing to bring it to the floor for a vote. Throughout the hearing, she peppered both camps with questions but did little to indicate where she stands on the issue. A likely mayoral candidate in 2013, she has been cautious not to ostracize either side of the debate.
At the start of the hearing, she said she hoped the Council could find a way to raise wages for New Yorkers “without doing anything that would make New York City a less desirable place to start or to relocate a business, or hurt our job-creation efforts in any way.”
“I’m hopeful,” Koppell said. “But as with everything else in the Council, it comes down to the Speaker.”
Should Quinn decide to bring the bill up for a vote, its backers would still need to win the support of a few more Council members: the legislation currently has 29 votes, but needs 34 to override the almost-certain veto it would get from Mayor Bloomberg.
At the living wage rally last week, hundreds of people packed into the pews of Harlem Riverside Church for a spirited, nearly two-hour service. Dozens of speakers took to the microphone in support of the legislation; several likened the campaign to other movements raging across the country and elsewhere, reiterating a sentiment of disillusionment with those in charge and frustration over the widening wealth gap.
“What is $10 an hour?” Koppell asked the cheering crowd. “It’s barely enough to survive, and it’s all we’re asking.”