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Living Wage Battle Renews King's Fight for Economic Justice

January 13, 2011

Diaz, Liu, and City Council members call for living wage jobs and commemorate Dr. King’s legacy with faith, labor and community leaders

An interfaith citywide coalition was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, numerous City Council members, and upwards of 2,000 labor and community activists at a spirited service in Harlem on Thursday night to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and demand passage of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act. The service, led by the Faith Caucus of the Living Wage NYC campaign, highlighted the growing citywide movement for economic justice, which Dr. King died fighting for more than 40 years ago.

“Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King lost his life during his struggle for better wages for our working class,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “The best way we can honor his memory and serve his legacy is to ensure that New Yorkers are served by a living wage law. I am proud to lead the movement to pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, and I hope that our actions to make a living wage a reality pay some small homage to Dr. King’s enormous legacy.”

The Fair Wages Act would require employers that receive major public tax subsidies to pay employees at least $10 per hour with benefits, or $11.50 without. The living wage legislation now has 29 City Council co-sponsors.

“If developers and the rich benefit from our tax dollars, they should pay a wage that allows people to live with dignity, be able to feed their family and provide a safe, clean place to live,” said Rev. Jesse T. Williams, who hosted the mass meeting at his Convent Avenue Baptist Church. “It is a fundamental issue of social justice,” he added.

“Dr. King’s legacy of standing up for the working poor animates the growing living wage movement in this city. It is the nexus where the labor movement and the civil rights movement must work hand-in-hand together. A record number of working New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds now rely on food stamps just to get by. Now is the time to pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act: the Act will strengthen our communities by ensuring that our tax dollars create living wage jobs, rather than jobs that would condemn people to lives of poverty,” said Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) President Stuart Appelbaum.

New York City Comptroller John C. Liu said, “I want to see greater economic development and job creation. Especially in this time of severe budgetary constraints, it is not only reasonable, but should be demanded, that economic development heavily subsidized by limited taxpayer funds is used to create good jobs. And good jobs require a living wage.”

Bronx City Council member Oliver Koppell, chief sponsor of the Act, said, “For too long, the plight of low-wage workers has been ignored. As long-term unemployment, poverty and hunger grow; it is incumbent upon us, as City Council members, to act now to improve the lives of working New Yorkers. The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act will aid us greatly in addressing these pressing concerns and deserves a hearing as soon as possible. Now is the time to pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.”

Nearly two million New Yorkers now rely on food stamps to survive, yet the city is turning a blind eye to the plight of the working poor. This is a clear sign the City’s economic policies have failed working people.

“Today, we are coming together to take up Dr. King's mission to affirm humanity and assault poverty,” said Rev. Michael Walrond Jr. of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. We are continuing the struggle for economic justice and fair wages by speaking for the oppressed and those who are caught in the cycle of poverty in our community. This is the most appropriate way to remember and honor Dr. King’s legacy. It is what we are called, commanded and commissioned to do. We are the voice of God crying out for justice for all people.”

“Dr. King once said, ‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’ But I believe If this nation continues to ignore the living wage not only are we approaching spiritual death but the grave is being prepared,” said Rev. Robert Waterman of Antioch Baptist Church in Brooklyn.

New York City spends billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize development and create jobs, but too often the jobs created with these public subsidies pay poverty wages with no benefits—whether it's retail and stockroom jobs at shopping centers, mailroom jobs in office buildings, or food service jobs at stadiums. When public tax dollars subsidize large private development, the public has the right to expect something in return: good jobs with good wages and benefits. Living wages are the hope of the working poor.

More than 45 cities have enacted such legislation and have found that these policies create quality jobs for local residents without slowing economic growth or preventing economic development. New York City is behind the times on this issue and, as a result, publicly subsidized developments are keeping people in poverty-wage jobs, rather than providing them with opportunities to get ahead. For more information on the Living Wage NYC campaign, visit http://www.livingwagenyc.org.