By Bruce Popper
On November 10, one-hundred people gathered in Washington Square Park in the rain to conclude a day of actions intended to highlight the need for a $15 minimum wage.
We gathered in the epicenter of a disaster area named Rochester, New York. There is no other name adequate to describe it. Over 50 percent of our children live in poverty. Violence and desperation grip many of our neighborhoods. The public school system is overwhelmed by the conditions in which its students live. So many of our people are in a struggle just to get by.
But unlike hurricanes, earthquakes, or monstrous snowstorms, this disaster is wholly man- made. By far its most decisive cause is low wages.
Most poor people work. They work every day. Many of them work several jobs. The reason they are poor is because the jobs they work do not pay a wage that comes close to allowing them to be self-sufficient.
In the Rochester region, there are over 20,000 health care workers in jobs that average below $15 per hour. They work as nursing assistants, home health aides, therapy assistants, and in a host of other vital roles that sustain our health care delivery system.
Add to their ranks child care workers, cooks, janitors, cashiers and retail sales people, secretaries, and even adjunct college faculty and we are talking about tens of thousands more. They live disproportionately in the city, and they are disproportionately people of color.
These jobs are not going away. They are not being outsourced to other countries. They are increasing in number. For these workers, the so-called economic recovery has passed them by. Their wages have remained flat and their purchasing power continues to erode. And that is the root cause of this disaster.
We declared that rainy day that we have had enough of man-made disasters. It’s time we cleaned up the mess and liberated the working class by empowering them with living wages. The rest will take care of itself, if only the working poor are paid what they deserve.
Fast-food workers have set an example. Although their fight for $15 and a union is far from over, here in New York State, they caught the attention of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Earlier this year, a wage board established a pathway to $15 per hour for many of them. And now Andrew Cuomo is proposing a $15 minimum for all workers. That’s what I call real disaster relief.
On November 10, Governor Cuomo said:
“I believe that if you work hard and work full time, you should not be condemned to live in poverty. Yet millions of families nationwide continue to be left behind by an insufficient minimum wage — and it’s time that changed. Today in New York, we are leading by example and creating an economy that is defined by opportunity, not inequality. We are restoring the fairness and economic justice that built the American dream and standing up for what’s right. I am proud of what we continue to accomplish, because New Yorkers deserve nothing less.”
So who doesn’t agree with that? Who doesn’t want working people to earn living wages? The Rochester Business Alliance and Unshackle Upstate are two such organizations. They have joined a statewide coalition to oppose the workers’ and governor’s initiative. Giving lip service to fighting poverty, they prefer to advance pay practices that keep tens of thousands of Rochesterians in poverty.
Some of their members are the same outfits who have busted up the attempts of their low- wage workers to organize a union. Some of them are allegedly nonprofits, but give their chief executives million-dollar salaries while paying a pittance to the folks who deliver the services. They receive tax breaks while their pay policies impoverish our community.
The argument that a substantial increase in the minimum wage is a “job killer” has no basis in fact. President Truman nearly doubled the minimum wage in one move and unemployment went down. President Eisenhower raised it by one third with the same result. States that have recently increased their minimum wage have higher job creation and lower unemployment rates than states which have not.
When low-wage workers get money, they spend it in the local economy. That’s an economic growth strategy that’s worth trying.
We know Albany and we have already heard from a well-funded opposition to the minimum- wage hike. We have our work cut out for us. But for the first time in a very long while, we have a winnable strategy to get us out of this mess.
Recalling the words of Nelson Mandela: “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”
Join with me, with Rochester’s unions, with Metro Justice, and with many others of good faith and character as we take up the cause: no less than $15 per hour for every worker, safe working conditions, and a union to guarantee both. That’s what we want. That’s what we need. That’s what will end the longest and most inhumane disaster in Rochester’s history.
Bruce Popper is president of the Rochester and Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and a vice-president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.