Remember back in 2011, in the heyday of Occupy Wall Street, when the question echoing across America was “what do they want?”
I flashed back to that looking out the seventh-floor window from the state Labor Department office at Varick St., at the vacant plot where the occupiers made a last stand after their rough eviction from Zuccotti Park . A handful of diehards scaled the walls into the arms of the police.
One answer to that question, clearer in hindsight: They are organized labor. They want better pay for workers at the bottom.
That’s good, and overdue. But as Gov. Cuomo proceeds willy-nilly, watch out for unintended consequences .
I was at Varick St. for the first meeting of Cuomo’s wage board, which he’s about to use to unilaterally hike the pay of fast-food workers. As the board slogged through boilerplate (the real theater will be at four public input sessions) , activists sat around the table quietly holding signs they’d snuck in.
Outside, more boilerplate — chants, drums and signs at a set place and for a set time — brought together some usual suspects from Occupy: Michael Kink of the Strong Economy For All Coalition, whom I last saw in person at Zuccotti ; Make the Road NYC; New York Communities for Change; and the SEIU, along with a handful of actual fast-food workers. Collectively, they managed enough presence and noise to be a decent backdrop for TV reporters.
“I am ashamed to tell you what I make,” one of those workers, Wilton Major, told me. The 43-year-old Guyanese-born American citizen, who’s been at KFC since 1991, eventually said he’s made minimum wage (now $8.75 in New York) that whole time.
The group was there to keep the pressure on Cuomo, now that he’s committed to raising fast-food workers’ wages, to get all the way to $15. (One sign that he will: the appearance of his surrogate Christine Quinn at a separate labor rally Wednesday where other speakers called for just that.)
Should that happen, it would be a big win for those workers — it’s not as if McDonald’s will then leave New York — but also for the organized-labor wing of Occupy, which was, among other things, a laboratory and breeding ground for a generation of young labor leaders searching for ways to break unions’ decades-long losing streak in the private sector.
The “fight for $15” movement — targeting an exceptionally difficult-to-organize industry where multi-billion-dollar corporations use franchisees to keep workers, who come and go, at arm’s length — came out of the new ambitions Occupy spawned.
In a sign of how quickly the winds have shifted among Democrats, Cuomo is now sliding to Mayor de Blasio’s left on a series of carved-out issues where he has powerful levers at his disposal. After his own push for a minimum wage hike ( a smaller one than de Blasio had asked for) was effectively rejected by the Republican-controlled state Senate, the governor’s newfound progressivism has seemed to follow where the news leads.
His Port Authority gave airport workers an additional $1 an hour after the Daily News’s Fight for Fair Pay campaign spotlighted their dire conditions. His dramatic emergency measures and new legislation for nail salons came after The New York Times documented stunning abuses in businesses that the state had long allowed to operate with minimal regulation in the tip-based, largely off-the-books shadow economy. And now, fast-food workers.
“I charge you to provide us with an understanding of what minimum wage means in today’s fast food industry,” his labor commissioner told the panel.
Let me save them some time: It means the same thing as it does in every industry with low pay and irregular hours. Even setting aside the cash economy — waiters, bartenders, dishwashers, delivery men, barbacks, nail workers, gas station workers, non-union construction workers, strippers, and on and on — opening a $6-an-hour gap between what Col. Sanders must offer and what Mo at the bodega can is risky business.
Let’s be clear: Should Cuomo win a big boost across the board, it would be a boon for workers — and a real hit for small businesses.
“I would prefer that the cost of this was really burdened by those at the highest income levels,” Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represents some of Los Angeles’ poorest areas, told The New York Times about that city’s new law, which he backed, raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2020. “Instead, it’s going to be coming from people who are just a rung or two up the ladder here. It’s a risk that rhetoric can’t resolve.”
Perversely, a big wage bump here could further accelerate gentrification, pricing out small owners already struggling to compete with big bank branches and pharmacy chains for ever-more expensive rents.
If things do play out that way, I expect to hear all about it at the next round of protests.
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