A Fight for 15 breakthrough in New York

July 23, 2015

Julian Guerrero reports from New York City on a victory for low-wage workers that was won through years of organizing and protests.

AFTER THREE years of protests by low-wage workers, a state-appointed board in New York tasked with investigating wages in the fast-food industry recommended on July 22 that workers at large national fast-food chains get a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Under pressure from activists and advocacy groups, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed the three-person wage board two months ago as a means to cut through the state government's legislative gridlock. The recommendation now goes to New York state Labor Commissioner, who is likely to approve the raise.

The $15-an-hour minimum wage targets fast-food chains with more than 10 employees, including the top three brands McDonald's, KFC and Burger King. The new minimum will be phased in by 2018 in New York City and by 2021 in the rest of the state.

For New York state's 200,000 fast-food workers, nearly one-third of whom reside in New York City, this is a clear victory. New York fast-food workers are some of the lowest paid in the entire country.

The question now is whether this increase targeted at the fast-food industry will prompt other companies and industries to raise starting wages on their own--or if low-wage workers can use this victory as leverage to push for a higher minimum in other workplaces.

Fast-food workers rally in New York City for a $15-an-hour minimum wage
Fast-food workers rally in New York City for a $15-an-hour minimum wage

IN AN effort to minimize a rebellion from organized labor and the left during the governor's election last year, Cuomo made promises to workers and their organizations that he would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour for public employees. This promise--along with others that Cuomo has so far neglected in his new term--won him the endorsement of the Working Families Party, which at the time was split over whether to endorse Cuomo or run law professor Zephyr Teachout as its gubernatorial candidate.

Teachout went on to win more than 30 percent of the vote in the Democratic primaries, and the Green Party ticket of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones, who both ran as open socialists, won the largest share of the New York vote for a third party in decades when they took 5 percent in the general election. These results illustrate New Yorkers' discontent with Cuomo, who has come to embody everything wrong with politics in the state.

But even though Albany politicians killed momentum in the legislature for a higher minimum wage, the movement forged ahead, putting thousands of fast-food workers in the streets in New York and many other cities as part of a national day of action on April 15. The continuing vibrancy of this movement no doubt spurred Cuomo, who was already worried by his faltering electoral performance, to appoint the wage board.

The three-person board, made up of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Mike Fishman and tech-entrepreneur Kevin Ryan, was formed to hold public hearings across the state on conditions for fast-food workers. Its hearings were limited to the fast-food industry, which led to howls of protest from CEOs in this sector.

"We continue to say that we think it's unfair that they singled out a single segment of our industry," Melissa Fleischut, executive director of the New York State Restaurant Association, told the New York Times. But the industry is not only the largest employer of low-wage workers in New York state, it has also posted massive profits while handing CEOs multimillion-dollar paychecks.

Fast-food workers used these public hearings to agitate for a higher minimum wage and pressure the wage board to act. Fast-food workers spoke about barely being able to make ends meet and complained about irregular hours. In fact, 60 percent of fast-food workers qualify for public assistance as a result of their working conditions.

At the wage board's last public hearing, fast-food workers submitted 160,000 signatures on petitions calling for a $15 minimum wage.

RATHER THAN developing a soft spot for the labor movement, a constituency that Cuomo has publicly railed against for years, it seems more likely that Cuomo's motivation is to pose as labor's friend to forestall efforts to build a left-wing electoral alternative to the Democratic Party.

For this reason, the higher minimum wage for fast-food workers is a victory that belongs first and foremost to fast-food workers themselves and the campaign they launched in 2012 under the slogan "$15 and a union."

The campaign put the issue of a higher minimum wage for low-wage workers on the radar in the first place, and then kept raising the temperature until it began yielding tangible victories. In recent months, there have been a string of increases in the minimum wage in other big cities, most notably Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco.

The same day that Cuomo's board recommended its wage increase, federal legislators in the House and Senate introduced a bill calling for a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage. While Republicans can be relied on to block passage of the bill and hand Democrats a club to beat them with during the 2016 elections, the proposed legislation will nevertheless raise expectations and further ratify the gathering sense that a $15-an-hour minimum wage is both necessary and feasible.

And other low-wage employers in the retail sector are now trying to get out in front of the growing clamor for better wages in the hopes of staving off a movement directed at them. Gap, Ikea and Walmart, for example, have already begun offering timid wage increases--to $10, $10.75 and $9 an hour, respectively.

Yet it's obvious that the movement is still a long way from its goal of "$15 and a union" for all low-wage workers. In New York state, the minimum wage currently stands at $8.75 with an increase to $9 at the end of the year. Millions of low-wage workers in New York--in the retail industry and the rest of the food and restaurant industry--also desperately need a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Winning this in the near term will require tapping into the movement's momentum and encouraging similar initiatives among workers organizing to demand similar increases now in their respective industries.

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