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Pharoah Bloomberg: Paying Workers Enough to Live Is 'Communism'

New York's billionaire mayor is so opposed to a tiny raise for workers at companies that get public money that he's vowed to sue. What's the deal with living wage laws anyway?

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To a few hundred New York workers laboring for $8 or $9 an hour, a living wage bill recently passed by the city council means a raise, a few dollars more a week to help feed their families.

To billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, it's a wedge to open the door to communism. That's right -- the mayor told a local radio program that requiring businesses that get taxpayer subsidies to pay their workers a little bit more is just like a centrally planned economy. “The last time we really had a big managed economy was the USSR, and that didn’t work out so well,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg is just fine with handing over millions of New Yorkers' dollars in taxpayer subsidies to companies that threaten to flee the city -- no complaints about “ free market” capitalism when it's wealthy real estate developers getting the dough. Requiring those businesses that are happily slurping at the public trough to pay their workers a dollar or two more an hour, though, is just opening the door to Stalin.

In addition, Bloomberg has been willing to support a statewide minimum wage increase -- so it's not really that he opposes workers making a little bit more as much as he's opposed to admitting that businesses that get public money have an obligation to the public. He's opposed to admitting that there's nothing “free market” about any of it.

No wonder a rally in support of the living wage bill was interrupted by a heckler calling him “Pharoah Bloomberg”—the reference to “Pharoah” making workers labor for low wages on taxpayer-funded projects seems apt, as the world's 20th richest man has vowed to sue to prevent the living wage ordinance from going into effect.

“Mayor Bloomberg is in fact taking the position that the immense buying power of the city as well as its prominent role in economic development should be used to milk private sector workers,” Mark Price, a labor economist who testified in 2009 before the New York City Council over a prevailing wage bill, told AlterNet. “The idea that the government can be used to do this to workers is a throwback to the Gilded Age when robber barons ruthlessly accumulated wealth and power at the expense of workers.”

But as the economy remains stalled and companies that pay poverty wages continue to get huge subsidies from cities and states (like New York's FreshDirect, which werecently reported is pocketing $129 million in handouts and is exempt from the new living wage rule), activists around the country are pushing for living wages in cities, on college campuses, and in tandem with pushes to raise the minimum wage.

What's a Living Wage, Anyway?

Michael Valdez used to work at Yankee Stadium, and as part of New York Communities for Change's campaign for the living wage, he told his story many times over. He told AlterNet, “They would schedule more cashiers than they needed, so in order to work that day, you would have to come on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you pass by Yankee Stadium, you see a line, you have to stand in that line. You're on this line for two or three hours, you definitely don't get paid for that. Me and at least 20 other employees have been turned back and sent home. They'll say 'come a little earlier tomorrow.'”

All this was for the princely sum of around $9 an hour, more than the state and federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour -- which made the job attractive to people like Valdez, who's working his way through college -- but certainly not enough to live on in New York. Valdez, who also worked at the Bronx Gateway Center Mall, another tax-subsidized development, noted that his pay wasn't enough to cover his books and other college expenses. “I couldn't fathom how a family would live on that paycheck,” he said.

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