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Living Wage Fight Comes to City Hall
The Observer
David Freedlander

May 12, 2011
View the Original Article


The next great battle in City Hall was joined today as the City Council held their inaugural hearing on The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, which would require all businesses that receive city subsidies pay at least $10 per hour, with benefits, to all of their employees.

Members of the Council grilled Tokumbo Shobowale, the chief of staff for Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel, who defended a study released yesterday by the Economic Development Corporation that said the bill would put a stranglehold on the city’s economy and hurt job growth.

“While we agree wholeheartedly with the aspirations of Intro 251-A to increase the standard of living and lift New Yorkers out of poverty – we disagree that the means proposed in the bill would achieve them,” Shobowale said. “In fact, the opposite is true: some unfortunate New Yorkers would as a result of the bill lose employment opportunities.”

Showbale added that the bill would limit the construction of affordable housing, drive more manufacturing across state lines, and hurt the city’s construction industry.

But even before Shobowale could finish, the hearing turned contentious as Contracts Committee Chairwoman Darlene Mealy interrupted him twice to ask him to summarize his remarks, which were distributed to Council Members, in order to allow everyone else there to speak.

“I think this is a serious matter,” Shobowale said, asking to be allowed to finish his statement.

“It is a serious matter but it shouldn’t be 12 pages long,” Mealy said. “Sixty people would like to testify and some people would like to give you questions.”

“I am willing to stay here as long as you like,” Showbowale shot back.

The fate of the bill will likely come down to whether or not Council Speaker Christine Quinn decides to bring it to the floor for a vote. It already has the support of a majority of the City Council, and backers are hoping that if they can get enough members to sign on, it could force Quinn’s hand.

In 2009, the Bloomberg administration was dealt a rare setback when the City Council demanded that the Related Company require any of its tenants pay a living wage in order to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. Related balked, and the deal fell through.

“I was very much involved in that battle,” said Council Member Oliver Koppell. “And the argument that was made by the administration and others in connection with the Kingsbridge Armory was consistently this was one project, it’s not a citywide project, therefore the Related Company will be disadvantaged in comparison with other developers… This bill is answer to that argument.”

Much of the discussion was centered around the EDC study released yesterday, with critics arguing that it ignored important evidence.

“I have great respect for you and for the administration,” Council Member Brad Lander told Shobowale. “I generally find the studies you put out to be thoughtful, good economic analysis. This I find to be a $1 million whitewash.”

The hearing today was the culmination of a months long advocacy effort by the bill’s backers, and rallies have been held all week to support the measure. There was some grumbling that the hearing was held at the smaller chambers in the Council’s office building at 250 Broadway, rather than the Emigrant Savings Bank, where they have been holding meetings while City Hall undergoes renovation. Dozens of supporters were forced to sit in an overflow room during the hearing, but their cheers could be heard whenever a Council Member directed a particularly barbed comment at the administration.

At a news conference today, Mayor Bloomberg was asked if he could be persuaded to support the bill.

He did not seem inclined.

“EDC just finished a very big study which showed, yes, it would increase the wages for some people, but it would decrease the number of people employed,” he said. “It would be–devastating is too strong a word–but it would be very unfortunate. You would not help people who are starting their way up the economic ladder. You would kill an awful lot of those jobs, and I don’t think that’s a good trade off for us. There are some jobs that just–you’re not going to–they’re not going to be high paying jobs but they’re better than no jobs, and if you drive them out of the city nobody really benefits from it.”