Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo Seizes on Wage Issue as Legislature Sits Paralyzed by Scandal, Partisanship


Gov. Cuomo at a minimum wage rally (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

"Do we have any members of labor in the house today? I can't hear you!" Gov. Andrew Cuomo shouted to a crowd of union members holding signs touting the "Fight for $15." Cuomo held a large rally in Manhattan's Union Square earlier this month as he announced he had instructed his labor commissioner to empanel a wage board to consider upping the minimum wage for fast food workers.

Cuomo draped himself in the labor movement, leading chants, hitting familiar themes of inequality and working class unity. But through it all Cuomo actually avoided saying what he thought the minimum wage should be. A number of critics say the governor instead delivered what they call "classic Cuomoian double talk."

Cuomo has been pushing an increase in the wage, though, albeit not to the $15 per hour rate that many are calling for - and that was emblazoned on the signs of many in the Union Square crowd. And, Cuomo did empanel the fast food wage board, the recommendations of which are due in July. "Some people call it income inequality and we've been talking about it for years," the governor told the crowd. "Unfortunately we've made little progress because it's not really income inequality because we've always had income inequality and we always will have income inequality," he said. "We never said in this country it should be equal incomes, it's not. But words matter and what we're really talking about is a state of affairs that has our economy commonly dealing with companies that don't want to pay a true minimum wage."

On Wednesday as the wage board convened, a number of progressive groups like Common Cause NY and labor unions rallied in Albany with Cuomo advisor and former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Quinn repeatedly avoided reporters' inquiries about whether Cuomo actually supports a $15 per hour minimum wage. Quinn said it would be "unfair" for Cuomo to say what he actually wants the board to do. Cuomo has not come out in support of a $15 minimum wage - for New York City or the state - and has generally taken the middle ground between business interests and the progressive wing of his party.

Some legislators and advocates are concerned that Cuomo is simply seizing a popular national issue because it is evermore challenging to move the scandal-ridden state Legislature on his campaign promises and the governor wants to counter his sinking poll numbers. Others say they believe Cuomo is sincere and that his support will buoy the issue.

The Cuomo Administration has a history of convening supposedly neutral commissions and touting independent outcomes while having seemingly already decided the results. The administration heavily influenced commissions on taxes and ethics and most recently insisted a decision on fracking was non-political and free of gubernatorial influence before turning around and touting the action as a sign of the governor's commitment to progressive stances. The wage board will study the issue of fast food wages, take testimony, and then make a recommendation to the Department of Labor which can implement an increase.

In announcing the wage board, the Cuomo administration noted that "Under New York State law, a Wage Board can suggest changes to the minimum wage in a specific industry or job classification if it finds that wages are insufficient to provide for the life and health of workers within that industry or classification."

Cuomo's website has a page dedicated to his push for a minimum wage increase that features many pictures of labor rallies - absent from the page are any pictures with the increasingly common "Fight for $15" signs or mention of $15 per hour as a goal.

Jess Wisneski of progressive group Citizen Action said she has no doubt Cuomo is sincere and committed in his efforts for fast food workers. "He came out in front of signs saying "$15 an hour,"" Wisneski told Gotham Gazette. "I don't think the governor would do it if he didn't feel comfortable with that. The governor is a very calculated guy. He can't prescribe it but he has shown solidarity with workers."

Wisneski notes that if the state wage board does deliver $15 it will set national precedent as all previous action on the issue has happened on the city level. (The Los Angeles City Council voted last week to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, leading to calls from Mayor Bill de Blasio and others that New York City must do the same - though the city is unable to set its own wage.) A $15 rate- or even close to that - for fast food workers would put pressure on the Legislature to deliver a larger increase for workers in all industries across the state. The state's current minimum wage is $8.75 and scheduled to increase to $9 at the end of the year.

"I honestly think this will have national implications," said Wisneski of Citizen Action. "The only reason the governor needed to go this route is because the Senate Republicans wouldn't do anything on the minimum wage." She said she believes Cuomo's action combined with the Los Angeles move and action taken in Seattle and elsewhere will invigorate the overall push for an increase to a $15 mininum.

Cuomo's action on fast food wages has bolstered his relationship with progressive groups like the Working Families Party that fell out with Cuomo after he reneged on promises he made to win the WFP's endorsement before last year's election - promises that included supporting a $15 minimum wage increase for New York City.

While those relationships have been enhanced, Cuomo's action has inflamed business groups that see the governor as either pandering to the progressive side of his party or subverting the legislative process. The National Federation of Independent Businesses in New York is holding its own rallies to oppose any wage increase and is warning that any increase could put small franchise owners out of business.

"Governor Cuomo is setting a frightening precedent by governing via executive order and completely usurping the legislative process," said Mike Durant, president of the New York chapter of NFIB, in a statement earlier this month. "The announcement of his intention to empanel yet another Wage Board will only embolden those calling on the State to dramatically increase labor costs on the full spectrum of small employers across New York. While NFIB does not represent the corporate fast food industry, this Wage Board assuredly will have a predetermined outcome and will set a disastrous course for future minimum wage discussion that will impact New York small businesses."

State Senator Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, said he expects Cuomo's push to increase awareness of the plight of fast food workers and low-income workers in general, which he sees as a very good thing. Peralta is the sponsor of a bill that would require retail businesses that employ 50 or more people to give workers a two week notice before changing their work schedules. "We need this to give workers stability, allow them to know what they will be paid for two weeks, to manage bills, to go to doctor's appointments without risking their jobs," Peralta said.

Peralta admits that a lot of groups are currently focused on the minimum wage but, "they understand the importance of this bill."

Advocates and legislators understand that realistically whatever the wage board decides will likely be the best they can get this year as Senate Republicans are still reeling from the arrest of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos and doing their best to deliver for their biggest corporate donors that help them hold the majority.

"I don't think the current Senate majority can do much on economic justice issues," said Wisneski. "We are going to work on increasing public awareness on these issues over the summer and the pressure will only increase on them for next session." Wisneski admits that real legislative action may have to wait until after the 2016 elections when Democrats hope to take the Senate by riding Hillary Clinton's coattails.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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