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Quinn Neutral In Wage Battle
Wall Street Journal
Joseph De Avila

November 23, 2011
View the Original Article

Advocates and opponents in the heated debate over a "living wage" bill pressed their case at a City Council hearing Tuesday, but the lawmaker who controls its immediate fate, Speaker Christine Quinn, didn't take a stand.

A majority of the City Council is behind the bill, but Ms. Quinn remained neutral on a delicate issue as she gears up for a 2013 mayoral run. If signed into law, it would require employers who get substantial public subsidies to pay a minimum of $10 an hour.

"It's my hope what we can find a way [to boost wages] without doing anything that would make New York City a less desirable places to start or relocate a business or hurt our job creation efforts," Ms. Quinn said at the Council's hearing Tuesday. "Whether such a balance is achievable is what we will explore."

The wage bill poses a political challenge for Ms. Quinn, a Manhattan Democrat feeling pressure from both sides. Ms. Quinn earned her early reputation as a liberal activist but has made efforts to appeal to the city's business community in recent months.

Last year, Ms. Quinn scuttled a paid sick leave bill that also drew heavy opposition from the city's business community but was supported by labor leaders and several council members.

During Tuesday's hearing of the Committee on Contracts, Ms. Quinn didn't voice a position on the issue and asked pointed questions to both critics of the bill and its supporters.

"Leadership is born out of these fights when competing interests on a very visible public issue wage battle," said Dick Dadey, executive director of good governance group Citizens Union of the City of New York. "A leader has to balance competing interests and find the common ground that allows everyone to stand together."

The proposed law would apply to employers and developers who receive a minimum of $1 million in city subsidies. Small businesses with less than $5 million in revenue and manufacturers would be exempt. Under the proposed law, employees would receive $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 an hour without benefits.

Councilman G. Oliver Koppell, a Bronx Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said the proposal would create "good jobs." "We think we have targeted the jobs that can be living wage jobs without impairing economic development," Mr. Koppell said.

Opponents said new wage standards would be unsustainable for many developers and business owners. Critics point to the collapse of a proposed $300 million redevelopment project at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx that would have required similar wage standards.

"The still-empty Kingsbridge Armory is a testament to the deterring effect of wage mandates and how they can thwart otherwise promising developments," said Steven Spinola of the Real Estate Board of New York.

But Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., who supported higher wages at Kingsbridge Armory, said: "When significant taxpayer funding is used to make private projects a reality, developers must do better by the people they employ."

The living wage issue has also split labor leaders. The retail union is a major backer of the bill as it vies for higher paying jobs. Construction unions eager for more real-estate development work, however, fear the bill would halt new projects.

"This new law will ensure that the economic recovery is based on a healthy middle class," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

"Our industry, the construction industry, is still right in the middle of this recession," said Jack Kittle, political director of District Council No. 9 of the International Painters and Allied Trades, which has 10,000 members. "When put at a disadvantage, business will go elsewhere."