Nearly half a century ago, Martin Luther King used the pulpit to issue a far-reaching call for social justice. Clergy and public officials laid claim to this legacy at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church last night, where they enjoined the city council to pass a bill guaranteeing a living wage for employees of development projects that receive financial aid from the city.
The evening had the feeling of a raucous revival, with the capacity audience urging on union officials and city councilmen with calls of “that’s right!” “tell it!” and beginning call-and-response chants of “Pass the bill — right now!” Beneath a huge blue banner reading LIVING WAGE NOW!, senior pastor Jesse T. Williams began the night with a call to action.
“The minimum wage is a poverty wage and it is inadequate to live off of for an individual, let alone a family, in New York,” Williams thundered. He intertwined references to Dr. King with pointed messages to elected official and urged city council speaker Christine Quinn to hold a long-delayed hearing on a living wage bill.
The living wage is currently set at ten dollars an hour with health benefits or $11.50 without, compared to the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The Fair Wage for New Yorkers Act would mandate this wage for employees of city-subsidized developments, including workers at businesses developed on land owned by the city. It would also lift a ceiling on the wage, which was capped at ten dollars an hour in a 2002 bill, so it can rise in proportion to inflation. Recent amendments offer exemptions for developments making less than a million dollars a year and nonprofits.
The issue became prominent in the spring of 2009, when an attempt to transform the vacant Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a shopping mall fell apart after the developers — who were looking at about $17 million in tax breaks from the city — rejected an agreement requiring a living wage for employees of the businesses that would occupy the building, leading the city council to resoundingly vote down the development, 45-1.
The defeat was a rebuke for Bloomberg and energized proponents of the living wage. It appears to still be a rallying point, something Bronx president Ruben Diaz, Jr., took advantage of in his time at the pulpit.
“We said listen, if you want charity, you have to be charitable,” he said. “If you want a public benefit, then your project has to benefit the public.”
Rep. Charlie Rangel, a fixture in Harlem, also made a surprise appearance. He drew parallels to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, recalling that when he undertook the 54-mile walk from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, he did not realize what was at stake.
“I had no idea that march was making history, but I want each and every one of you here tonight to take a deep breath and realize you are making history,” he said.
City councilman Oliver Koppell, who joined Annabel Palma in introducing the bill, told the audience the legislation had garnered a 29-vote majority and said he was urging Quinn to hold a hearing. In an interview after the rally, he said she seems to be warming to the bill, and noted supporting it would give her an opportunity to tamp down criticism of her decision to postpone a vote on paid sick leave. But the more urgent battle, Koppell said, is to win Bloomberg’s support.
“The biggest problem is the approval of the mayor, but we can’t let the mayor control this,” Koppell said. “I’m not totally pessimistic about the chances of getting the mayor to support this.”
The mayor’s specially appointed policy analysts may be less optimistic about the bill’s repercussions. A yet-to-be-published study commissioned by the city’s Economic Development Council has already led a chorus of critics to charge that the authors’ past research shows a pattern of bias against wage standards. Conversely, a recent report by the Center for American Progress examined 15 U.S. cities that have a living wage in place — including Los Angeles and Philadelphia — and concluded that they did not sacrifice jobs.
City comptroller John Liu and council member Inez Dickens also spoke. City council members Melissa Mark-Viveritos, Letitia James and Gale Brewer attended.