Mayor de Blasio’s “Living Wage” Increase Is Too Little for Too Few

2014.10.7.Mayor.MainNew York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Kevin Case / Flickr)

Increasing the living wage is a good start, but all of New York’s minimum wage workers deserve a raise.

Minimum wage activists and organizers across the country are abuzz over the announcement that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed an executive order to expand and increase the city’s living wage law.

The good news is that the order, signed on September 30, offers real wage increases for ordinary workers. The new legislation will increase the minimum living wage from $11.90 to $13.13 for all non-benefit workers who are employed by commercial tenants that receive significant subsidies (over $1 million) from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

Similar workers with benefits would see their minimum living wage rise from $10.30 to $11.50. The de Blasio administration estimates that this could mean a wage increase for as many as 18,000 workers citywide. Furthermore, this decision may very well be part of a larger effort by de Blasio to convince Albany to allow him to create a universal New York City minimum wage of $13.13. Such an increase, pegged to inflation, could lead to a $15 an hour citywide minimum wage for all workers by 2019.

Though it’s not the $15 an hour now that many advocates have been calling for, this plan is nonetheless a step in the right direction. Minimum wage activists should take heart that de Blasio is very clearly feeling the heat of the national grassroots movement to increase the minimum wage, including the recent victory of a $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers in Seattle that made international headlines.

But this new legislation is not all sunshine and roses. First of all, the wage increases on offer are slight when compared to the cost of living in New York City: $1.23 and $1.20 an hour, respectively, (about a 10 percent total raise) for only a small portion of New York City’s minimum wage workers, is not nearly enough, and benefits far too few.While New York City commercial landlords and real estate interests continue to reap huge benefits from city subsidies, and retail stores and food companies like Starbucks and Macy’s continue to make massive yearly profits, many New Yorkers have seen their wages stagnate or fall, and others, even with two or three different jobs, are struggling to keep up with the city’s ever increasing rents. Indeed, even under the new so-called living wage legislation, many low-wage workers, (including single parents with one or two children) working 40 hours a week, would still fail to meet the minimum standards for a living wage according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.

Furthermore, the legislation is yet another example of the failure of public-private initiatives and institutions like the EDC to generate actual social change. Built around massive givebacks to city business and real estate interests, and designed with their express consent in mind, this legislation does nothing to change the actual status quo of economic and political power dynamics within the city. Instead, it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of wages for a minority of workers who have few other options to earn a decent wage. Worse, the complexity of the law makes rampant wage theft and obstruction easy for big companies like the Maramont Corporation, which underpaid its workers for more than a decade. As the new law expands, and as the city comptroller’s office is stripped of its oversight, such violations will no doubt continue to take place.

New York’s workers, especially those struggling to piece together a living on $8 an hour, need a real raise. A citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour would lift all of New York’s workers out of poverty and provide them with a legitimate living wage.

Although this legislation and de Blasio’s planned $13.13 have their shortcomings and fail to go far enough, minimum wage activists should nonetheless be proud of this development. Without the pressure exerted from below, we would not even be having this conversation, and even a $13 minimum wage would be a distant dream. The pressure is clearly working and it is imperative that we keep it up.

Those interested in fighting for the future of New York’s working class can join 15 Now and help mobilize for a truly livable wage for all.