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A National Living Wage Fight Finds a Battleground in NYC: 'We Aren't Here Just To Survive, We Want to Live'

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act has garnered strong support among the city's labor and religious communities, but has run up against big-moneyed, powerful interests.

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[T]he very administration commissioning the study has repeatedly argued that living and prevailing wage provisions would hinder development and kill jobs, creating the perception that the outcome is already determined.

And the selection of Charles River [Associates] added fuel to the fire because two of its leading consultants—David Neumark and David Macpherson—are outspoken critics of wage mandates, though Macpherson is not on the living wage study team.

As you might've guessed, the study was not favorable to the living wage legislation; it concluded that "the employment losses that could result from a decline in real estate in response to the living wage mandate are significant....These losses impact employees at all wage levels." These findings were disputed by a counter-report published by the National Employment Law Project and other groups, which found that "errors in methodology and analysis" in the city-funded report "render the study fundamentally flawed."

Why are New York businesses (and their ally, the mayor) putting up such a fight against the activists who want a mere $10 hourly wage requirement for a tiny percentage of New York workers? To put it plainly, businesses are concerned because they know living-wage laws are effective.

In San Francisco, for instance, city leaders signed a piece of living-wage legislation into law in 2000. The law turned out to be successful and popular enough that other, more far-reaching laws were passed. University of California Berkeley Labor Center Chair Ken Jacobs recently examined San Francisco's legislation, and found that both workers and businesses have benefited:

San Francisco's labor standards laws do not appear to be deterring retailers who want to locate in the city or developers looking for tenants or project financing. A new Lowe's just opened up in the city, just a short drive from their existing store in South San Francisco, which has no labor standards requirements beyond what is in state law.

The verdict is clear: labor standards policies of the kind San Francisco put in place improve workers' income, productivity and health, reduce turnover and decrease job vacancies; they have not reduced the number of jobs.

This is good news indeed for the workers and businesses in cities, such as New York, that are considering new living wage policies on economic development programs. San Francisco may be unique in the breadth of protections we provide our workers, but we are not special in our need to improve labor standards.

Living-wage laws have also been passed in Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and some 40 other cities. Even though Jacobs and numerous other researchers have found that living-wage laws are a win-win-win for these cities, their workers and their businesses, many industry leaders still tremble at pro-labor legislation, for fear that it might impact their bottom line. And that is exactly what business groups are fighting against in New York City.

Mayor Bloomberg and his business friends may have the advantage of money and influence, but grassroots activists -- the Davids of the living-wage battle -- have managed to put up an impressive fight. Living Wage NYC, a campaign organized and led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, has brought together a diversity of organizations and individuals to support the measure, including the African American Clergy and Elected Officials, the Drum Major Institute, City Harvest, the Stonewall Democratic Club, the Jewish Labor Committee, the National Lawyers Guild-NYC Chapter, and a number of local unions and elected officials. The campaign's rally's have been well attended and high-energy (you can watch a video of some rally highlights here), and its list of supporters is growing by the day.

One significant name who's thrown his support behind the campaign is Martin Luther King III, who wrote in a statement, "New York City offers a national roadmap for continuing my father’s unfinished work of economic justice….We need the living wage movement to succeed and spread to other parts of the country." He went on, "Countless stories of the working poor today are about people making impossible choices: food or rent, clothing or electricity. When we pause over those stories, and understand their painful significance, we grasp something fundamental about a country as wealthy as ours: no working person should have to settle for surviving over living. It’s that simple."

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