HARLEM, NY— Thousands of New Yorkers packed the sanctuary of Covenant Avenue Baptist Church last Thursday for an interfaith service honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where union leaders, clergy members and community activists joined with elected officials to demand passage of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which remains under consideration in the City Council.
Support for the bill, which would standardize a living wage in private sector jobs created through tax dollar-subsidized development projects, has gained substantial momentum in recent months, owing largely to dramatic mobilization by a citywide coalition of faith, labor and community organizations which comprise the Living Wage NYC campaign. On Thursday, leaders from these groups renewed Dr. King’s commitment to economic justice, speaking out on behalf of the millions of New Yorkers struggling to both live and work in poverty.
‘The Capital of Economic Disparity’
Linda Archer, a middle aged Bronx native, earns $7.50 an hour working at a Times Square fast food restaurant. She receives no medical or retirement benefits, and, unable to afford her own residence, has no choice but to live with a relative. The guarantee of a living wage job, she testified on Thursday, would eliminate the decision between “having insurance and paying rent” that she and many New Yorkers are currently forced to make.
Ms. Archer’s story has become the reality for a steadily increasing percentage of the working class in the City, where over 2 million residents currently rely on food stamps and other publically funded programs to meet their basic needs. In his testimony on Thursday, City Comptroller John C. Liu called attention to the fact that similar, tax dollar-funded “public assistance” is being issued to large corporations at a steadily increasing rate, despite the fact that their rate of job creation has steadily decreased.
Liu drew similarities between the corporations are subsidized by so-called Community Benefit Agreements and those that are privately contracted for city operations—some of which have been recently exposed as “multimillion-dollar boondoggles” ridden with fraud and waste. He sees the vacuum of subsidized economic development as an “unsustainable practice” that amounts to “taxpayer dollars being flushed down the toilet,” by supporting projects that create substandard employment. Against the backdrop of this data, he called on council members to pass the Fair Wages Act, ensuring that corporations be held accountable to their promise to “create good jobs” by “demanding that the jobs pay a living wage.”
The activist clergy of Living Wage NYC’s Faith Caucus underscored the profound effects of the economic crisis on the City’s working poor, emphasizing that communities have far greater needs than faith-based charities can meet. These leaders are positioned on the “front lines in the fight against poverty,” said Dr. Jesse T. Williams Jr., Convent Avenue Baptist’s senior pastor, who vowed that the coalition would not stop until the “roots of poverty” are destroyed.
A ‘Moral Imperative’
RWDSU/UFCW President Stuart Applebaum, whose union is a central player in the Living Wage NYC campaign, expressed the significance of organized labor’s commitment to improving the standard of living for all working people. In his testimony he asserted that “a local economy that creates a growing number of poverty-level jobs is not just immoral, it is economically unwise, unsustainable and unacceptable.” RWDSU itself has played a significant role in building major support for the Fair Wages Act, spearheading grassroots retail organizing projects and community-based campaigns throughout the city.
Sitting alongside Applebaum on Thursday was Lillian Roberts, Executive Director of AFSCME’s District Council 37. Though her union faces mounting pressure from the city and state levels going into the upcoming budget season, she spoke out strongly against the mainstream media’s attempts to divide the city’s public and private sector unions. While pledging her union’s support in the fight for living wages standards in the public sector, she urged listeners to “pay very close attention and analyze what’s going on” in the struggles of organized labor, vowing that she would fight so that the “union movement can preserve what we have, build on it, and welcome you [new members] into it.”
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
In the face of the constant threat of layoffs and heightened scaremongering over the so-called public employee pension “crisis,” it remains to be seen whether whether Roberts and DC37 will be able to extend more than ideological solidarity to the living wage movement. Longtime labor activists, on the other hand, see the campaign as a tremendous opportunity to restore much-needed solidarity within the movement itself.
While the bill has the enthusiastic support of council members in some of the city’s most underserved communities, it still faces opposition from the highest levels of city administration. Advocates from all elements of the Living Wage coalition seem to agree that as relief from the jobs crisis remains nowhere in sight—especially in the city’s minority communities-- the battle for living wage standards can “only be the beginning.” Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Labor-Religion Interfaith Coalition reiterated a sentiment expressed by the Fair Wages Act’s sponsors in the City Council: that the “powerful and diverse movement” will not only succeed in making a living wage a reality, but will “go on to do even greater things for the community.”
Those present Thursday were reminded that on the day before his assassination in April 1968, Dr. King addressed Memphis sanitation workers who had gone on strike demanding a living wage and a union contract. Having long professed the need for a unified social movement that seeks economic, social, and racial equality, King’s legacy today inspires a coalition that has renewed his struggle and that offers tremendous hope and promise to new generations of working people.