After two years of tortuous negotiations, a coalition of grassroots community activists, labor unions, clergy and local politicians is about to introduce a municipal ordinance to make New York the 68th city to have a living wage law. As it now reads–the details may change–the law will require any business getting $500,000 or more in city subsidies, leasing from a building that does, or holding a daycare or home healthcare contract with the city, to pay its employees at least $8.10 an hour.
Nationwide, such laws have become an increasingly popular way to make companies that do business with the city pay their employees a wage high enough to live on. In New York, attempts to update a vestigial 1996 law got bogged down in a series of tradeoffs among unions, nonprofits and pols.
Now, however, the fragile coalition thinks it has a plan to cover the lowest paid workers for less money. But no one can figure out if the timing–it could be introduced as soon as this Wednesday–is perfect or abysmal. “I think there’s a recognition after 9-11 that there are some basic issues of dignity and fairness for low-wage and immigrant workers,” said Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition. “On the other side, there’s going to be the argument that given the state of the economy, this isn’t the right time.”
The bill’s authors did take the city’s fiscal situation into account after September 11 by exempting human service nonprofits. They also devised a payment scheme that would spread the cost to the city for childcare workers over several years, with wage hikes kicking in only after two years.
And then, a few weeks ago, the bill’s supporters scored big: A deal Governor Pataki cut with Dennis Rivera, the powerful head of hospital workers’ union Local 1199, paid for the state’s portion–roughly $40 million–of raises for the city’s 70,000 Medicaid home health care aides.
But given the city’s $4 billion budget gap, some of the coalition’s members fear Rivera’s deal may have hurt as much as it helped. A recession is not the time for politicians to look soft on organized labor, and if Bloomberg wants to seem tough, being linked with the man in the hat might make their bill a cost-cutting target. “Dennis didn’t do us any favors here,” said one coalition member. If Bloomberg did lean toward supporting the bill, “he cautioned, people will accuse the mayor of going down the same rotten road as the governor.”
Most of the legislation’s supporters, though, think the faltering economy may work in their favor. “There’s going to be a struggle for resources now, and that’s why now is a good time to introduce this,” said David Jones, executive director of the Community Service Society. “I’ve heard many things put forth now, from the arts to skyscrapers to billion-dollar rebuilding projects. I haven’t heard much about the needs of the working poor. Politically, they are not a constituency that can be ignored right now.”