With Fast Food Strikes, Some See Momentum for Minimum Wage Hike

Fast-food workers protest in New York City in May. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Fast-food workers protest in New York City in May. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Eyes nationwide will be on fast food workers tomorrow as they strike in search of a $15-an-hour wage. But in the state’s capital, many are hoping that ongoing movement will translate into the city’s ability to set its own higher minimum wage — even if it’s not as much as $15 an hour.

“Momentum is building in New York and around the country. I think the fast food workers are really are a powerful example of the unconscionable low wages that many very hard-working New Yorkers are subject to,” Assemblyman Richard Gottfried told the Observer. “And people are coming to understand that this is not about teenagers getting jobs after school — these are adults who are in many cases supporting or trying to support families, and the employers are not the mom-and-pop candy stores, these are multi-billion dollar international corporations.”

In interviews with the Observer, several Albany lawmakers cited the fast food workers as a visible example to New Yorkers of why a minimum wage increase matters — and why it matters even more so in New York City, with a higher cost of living than elsewhere in the state.

“New York State’s economy is very different across the state — it’s something like 80 percent more expensive to live in New York City than it is in places like Buffalo,” State Senator Brad Hoylman said. “So local minimum wages should reflect that differentiation — and nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the fast food industry, which is incredibly profitable but pays very little to its employees. New Yorkers encounter that on a daily basis with these workers.”

A bill to hike the minimum wage to $9 in 2015 has already been passed, but some lawmakers and wage advocacy groups like Raise Up NY have assailed it as not enough — especially because it doesn’t allow parts of the city with higher costs of living to set higher wages.

Mayor Bill de Blasio called in his State of the City address for New York City to be able to set its own minimum wage, which is currently controlled by the state legislature — but Gov. Andrew Cuomo was originally opposed to the idea, saying different minimum wages would be “chaotic.” He changed his tune, however, when receiving the endorsement of the Working Families Party, saying then he’d be open to municipalities setting different minimum wages — within limits.

Mr. Cuomo has now vowed support for a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10, and allow certain areas — including New York City — to increase that by up to 30 percent, which could yield a minimum wage here of just above $13.

In addition to the local momentum gained by Mr. Cuomo’s backing, elected officials said they believed the increased focus on the plight of fast food workers — who President Barack Obama name-checked in a Labor Day speech — will keep the issue at the fore.

“This is something that has been building momentum over the least couple of months and we hope that tomorrow will continue to draw attention to that,” State Sen. Gustavo Rivera said.

And Mr. Rivera said Mr. Cuomo’s shift on the minimum wage showed the arguments in favor of a local New York City option had been effective.

“This will immediately be a positive influence on economic activity — anybody can change their mind, particularly if they’re convinced that it’s a good idea,” Mr. Rivera said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to change their mind.”

But it will be months before Albany can act on a minimum wage — they don’t return to session until January. Still, the elected officials argued there are key dates for the minimum wage bill coming up much sooner: the primary and general elections that will decide control of the State Senate.

“The timing is perfect,” Mr. Hoylman said, “because we’re leading up to November, and you know New York is going to be re-examining its minimum wage — and a Democratic senate is going to deliver a local option.”

Mr. Hoylman and others eschewed criticizing the governor for his late arrival to supporting local minimum wages, and instead pointed to the senate — and its previous leadership by the Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference — as the reason such a bill hasn’t already passed.

But now that the IDC has vowed to caucus with Democrats next session, lawmakers supporting the minimum wage hike are hopeful the bill can pass the senate — assuming Republicans don’t win enough seats to take control on their own.

“It boils down to one simple yet complex question: that is, who will control the New York State Senate? To be frank, I think that’s what it comes down to,” Assemblyman Karim Camara said.

“The governor’s support on any issue is enormously important,” Mr. Gottfried said, “but on this and on several issues, unfortunately the Assembly and the governor have not been able to get the State Senate to move — and so clearly more needs to happen on Election Day.”

For his part, Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein, who heads the IDC — and, like several IDC members is being challenged in a Democratic primary — promised to fight for minimum wage increases.

“I led the fight to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and will continue the fight to increase the minimum wage for localities next session so that workers can earn what they deserve,” Mr. Klein said in a statement.

Republican Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

While elections will certainly play a role in whether the bill passes, Mr. Camara said in his mind, allowing local control of minimum wages had less to do with party politics and more to do with pragmatism. In Binghamton, a three-bedroom townhouse rents for $550 a month.

“In Brooklyn, for $550 a month you can’t get a one-bedroom or a studio,” Mr. Camara said.