Andrew Cuomo touts positive effects of increased spending on local economy in announcing support for wage hike Thursday, backed by Vice-President Joe Biden
The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced his support for a statewide minimum wage of $15 an hour on Thursday, backed by Vice-President Joe Biden and high-profile labor leaders. “Is labor in the house today?” Cuomo asked to cheers from the crowd and cries of “Yes we can!” and “Sí se puede!”
“The greatest feast has the most people at the table,” Cuomo told the audience of union workers at New York City’s Javits Center convention hall, walking on and off the stage to Bon Jovi’s Work for the Working Man.
In July, the Cuomo-appointed Fast Food Wage Board recommended chain restaurants in New York City with more than 30 locations nationwide increase wages to at least $15 an hour by 2018; restaurants in the rest of the state will reach that level in 2021. Cuomo announced on Thursday that “the state of New York’s labor department has accepted the recommendation of the wage board in full”.
“When the minimum wage becomes $15 an hour [in New York] – you know what the total of that raise is? The governor knows: $1.8bn,” Cuomo said. “That’s not only the difference between living in poverty and having a chance; that $1.8bn gets spent. It has to get spent to keep up. If you give that in a tax break to the wealthy, they don’t spend it, they put it in a bank account. You spend it.”
George Gresham, head of the largest local union of the Service Employees International Union (SEUI), 1199 SEIU, introduced Cuomo and Biden, praising the governor and calling the program “an exciting announcement for all working people in our state”.
Gresham further said that the program ought to be called the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice, after Cuomo’s father, also a governor of New York, who died on 1 January 2015.
The speeches were unabashedly political: “Unlike an idiot who’s running for president of the United States, whose name rhymes with ‘chump’ [a reference to Donald Trump] we believe that diversity is proud,” said Gresham, “and we are happy to say ‘yes we can’ and ‘sí se puede’.”
“We have a Congress in Washington that has worked to stymie the president and the vice-president in every way they could,” said Cuomo. “In gridlock, everybody loses.” But New York, he said, would lead by example: “We chose a different path, we rejected the extremists, we rejected the zealots. We believe it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Republicans in the New York legislature are upset that Cuomo effectively bypassed review of the fast food workers wage hike by the state senate and assembly: “I find it disturbing that they would decline the legislature’s request to provide insight and clarity, as well as answer questions about this process,” the New York senate labor committee chairman, Jack Martins (a Republican from Nassau County, part of Long Island), said in comments to local political blog Politics on the Hudson. “It’s even more troubling that given one of the major concerns about this process is that it circumvented the legislature.”
The Fight for $15 movement has been successful in several municipalities across the country, from St Louis to Los Angeles. But no state has yet adopted the plan, with Washington state’s $9.47 an hour the highest in the nation. Biden touted President Barack Obama’s plan for a $12-an-hour national minimum wage, in addition to praising Cuomo’s proposed program.
“Raising [the minimum wage] to $12 nationally means 35 million people, many of whom are living on the edge or in poverty, will have a chance,” Biden said. “And in higher-wage states, like when you do it here, you raise everybody up.”
There was praise for Gresham as well: the SEIU president, Mary Kay Henry, called Gresham her brother, and Cuomo called him “my political godfather”. “You thought godfathers have to be Italian? They don’t have to be Italian. 1199 got me started in this state.”
Henry made sure to call attention to Alvin Major, a KFC employee whose story of low-wage employment is a particularly extreme one: “He struck 12 times before this wage board recommendation that the governor is accepting today,” Henry said. “He has children and a wife who is being treated for cancer, and the way he stitched together money for her care was by working three jobs that totaled between 80 and 100 hours a week.”