In politics, the greatest opportunities often present themselves amid the least promising of circumstances. The New York Working Family Party’s (WFP) scandalous and much decried endorsement of Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 1 is but one example of how, out of the chaos of internal conflict, opportunities for more radical change can become possible. Though the WFP endorsement was a shameful capitulation to the politics of business as usual, it very well may have opened up a new front in the fight to raise the minimum wage in New York City.
Though Cuomo had several times expressed opposition to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s longstanding plans to increase the city’s minimum wage, the mayor’s last minute role in securing the endorsement of the WFP for Cuomo seems to have changed the ground of that debate, and it is looking increasingly likely that Cuomo may now be more open to allowing the city to set its own minimum wage above the state level – with caveats, of course. By just how much and when the minimum wage (currently an insultingly low $8 an hour) might be increased remains to be seen, but it is clear that lawmakers in New York City and Albany, including de Blasio, are feeling the heat of the grassroots minimum wage movement that has been sprouting up in cities across the country – most notably in Seattle, which recently passed legislation increasing that city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
As another gubernatorial election draws near, the battle over a truly livable minimum wage could very well become a contentious issue in a campaign that has already seen its fair share of acrimony. However, while Democratic Party politicians like Cuomo and de Blasio are no doubt going to find themselves torn between supporting popular demands like increasing the minimum wage on one side and pandering to their corporate donors on the other, ordinary New Yorkers will continue to feel the sting of an economy designed for the benefit of the few.
Like workers in other metropolitan centers, New York’s working poor are struggling more than ever to get by in a city that has grown prohibitively expensive. According to a 2013 Business Insider article, among its five boroughs, New York City contains three (that’s right, three!) of the most costly cities in the entire country. Manhattan, not surprisingly, is by far the most expensive, followed by Brooklyn at the number 2 spot, and Queens, which boasts a 22 percent poverty rate, at number 6. Indeed, as a recent New York Times article points out: since 2000, rents in New York City as a whole have increased 18 percent, while average wages have actually dropped by 7 percent. This condition of obscene wealth and privilege for the few amid ever-growing numbers of the poor and destitute is not only unsustainable, but unjust, and the increasing number of movements across the country demanding a higher minimum wage makes it clear that people are no longer willing to sit back and accept their continued exploitation.
In Seattle, for instance, the City Council recently approved, thanks in large part to the insurgent socialist campaign of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, an historic plan that would build toward a guaranteed $15 an hour minimum wage permanently indexed to inflation. Though the legislation was tragically watered down by a Democratic mayor and a full court press of powerful business interests – which callously pitted small businesses against ordinary workers – it will still offer the highest minimum wage in the country. Under the plan, many workers will reach $15 an hour or its equivalent by 2017 and the rest by 2025. The new minimum will also lift hundreds of thousands in Seattle out of poverty over the next seven years and over the next 10 years is expected to transfer $3 billion from the pockets of the rich into the hands of the working poor. This plan, though not the immediate increase to $15 an hour that many activists wanted, is still a huge victory, won only through the dedicated work of a grassroots campaign of ordinary workers who refused to politically lowball their expectations. New York City politics are very different however, and the fight for a living wage is going to be a lot more complicated here. Though Seattle was able to increase the minimum wage through a simple majority vote (the actual vote was unanimous) in the City Council, the New York State Constitution actually prohibits municipalities from independently setting their own minimum wage. Any increase to the minimum wage would therefore have to be approved by the state first. The problem, of course, is getting such an increase past a governor who has proven so committed to the agenda of the 1%.
And that is precisely why the national demand for 15 Now is so important. Although Cuomo has recently indicated that he is now open to the idea of allowing NYC to increase the minimum wage by up to 30 percent more than the state minimum wage, he has also argued that allowing New York state municipalities to set their own minimum wage without such an arbitrary limit would lead to what he called “a chaotic situation.” Despite this apocalyptic rhetoric, however, the governor has provided no evidence to support such claims. Indeed, many studies have shown that the exact opposite is true, and that municipal control would not lead to chaos but would instead mean higher wages for ordinary workers, a higher tax base, increased employment and more vigorous local economies. The reasons for this are clear: Increasing the local minimum wage puts more money into the pockets of those who are most likely to put that money back into the local economy, increasing revenue for local businesses, which in turn hire more employees. Furthermore, though both the governor and the mayor seem poised to raise the wage, they are both flat out wrong to limit the proposed 2015 increases to $13.30 an hour (30 percent more than the expected $10.10 state minimum some Democratic politicians are pushing for). Putting such an arbitrary cap on the minimum wage when so many of New York’s most vulnerable workers are struggling to get by shows a callous disregard for the interests of the working classes. Rather than haggle with the governor over percentage points, de Blasio and the state legislature should instead demand that the New York City Council be allowed to set its own minimum wage without limit, and the mayor and the Working Families Party, rather than limiting themselves to a possible increase to $13.30, should instead get behind the growing movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage indexed to inflation.
Of course New York City’s working families should not and can not count on de Blasio, Cuomo, or the WFP to do the right thing when it comes to significantly raising the minimum wage or any other proposals that would actually challenge their corporate benefactors. As we saw in Seattle, politicians and political parties such as the Democrats are too indebted to the interests of big business to ever willingly approve an unadulterated $15 an hour minimum. Indeed, all of the governor’s recent concessions – which, after all, had to be dragged out of him by a hangdog WFP at the last minute – might very well turn out to be little more than election-year smoke and mirrors.
When 2015 rolls around and NYC has an unlivable $9 an hour minimum wage, de Blasio and the WFP will wring their hands and offer plenty of practical and rational explanations for why they failed, but the pain and suffering of ordinary workers will be more acute than ever. No, winning this struggle and fending off the interests of big business will require more than political compromise and backroom negotiating in Albany. The lessons of Seattle are plain: ordinary working people can win, but not without a real movement, and not without people in the streets ready to make their demands loudly and unequivocally.
This article was originally published in Truthout.