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The Fight for $15 and the Establishment: A New York Case Study

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On May 6th, a prominent New York policymaker wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, in which they called for the New York State Wage Board to consider a $15 an hour minimum wage for fast food workers. Justifying this move, they argued that:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the minimum wage a national law in 1938. Years earlier, he said, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” But minimum wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.

Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry. Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour.

Fast-food workers and their families are twice as likely to receive public assistance compared with other working families…

While workers in the fast-food industry are clearly struggling, the industry itself is quite healthy, having taken in $195 billion in global revenues last year…Industry leaders have argued that raising wages for fast-food workers would drive up the prices of burgers and fries beyond what many customers, themselves of modest means, can afford. But that hasn’t been the experience in other countries….

Roosevelt, too, faced powerful opposition to the minimum wage. But he did not pull his punches as he said: “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Surely, this paean linking New Deal liberalism to the modern-day “Fight for Fifteen” movement was written by some commie pinko firebrand like Bill DeBlasio! Well…it turns out that the author is none other than one Andrew Cuomo, arch-ConservaDem.

So what gives?

This op-ed, and the move by Governor Cuomo to direct the Wage Board to consider a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers in New York, raises some interesting questions about how the Fight for Fifteen movement – a predominantly poor and working-class movement, predominantly of color, allied with unions and social movement groups, and using a combination of strikes, protests, and political organizing – has affected the political establishment.

On the one hand, this is a noticeable step for Cuomo, who fought DeBlasio hard on a higher minimum wage for New York City workers, and who backed out on his pledge to the Working Families Party to raise NYC’s minimum wage to $13 to promote a move for a $11.50 minimum wage for NYC. And certainly the rhetoric of the piece – the allusion to fast-food organizing, the Fight for Fifteen, the use of progressive talking points on inequality, poverty wages, and international comparisons, and the repeated appeals to FDR – suggests a shift leftwards. It’s also noticeable that Cuomo is going through the Wage Board, something that activists used and were quite successful with in ending the tipped minimum wage earlier this year.

So chalk one up for outside-inside political organizing, right?

Well….not so fast. For one thing, this isn’t a call for a $15 minimum wage for everyone…just for fast-food workers. This move, while an important victory for the 160-odd-thousand fast food workers in the state, would leave out the 900,000 retail workers in New York state, to say nothing of people working in non-fast-food restaurants, hotels, and other low-wage sectors.

Context is important here: Cuomo’s move is substantially to the right of the State Assembly, whose Democratic majority just voted through a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage to $12.60 an hour and New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County to $15 an hour. In this light, Cuomo’s op-ed looks less like the establishment caving in to pressure from the grass-roots, and a lot more like a governor looking to run for a third term who wants to guard his left flank against a revenge-seeking Working Families Party by combining the maximum amount of progressive rhetoric with the minimum substantive shift on policy.

That’s not to say that Cuomo isn’t doing this because of pressure from below – that’s clearly playing a big role, hence the focus on satisfying the demands of fast-food workers as opposed to any other category of minimum wage workers. But I think it points to both the strengths and limits of outside pressure strategies – they can raise the profile of an issue and put pressure on policymakers to do something about it, but it’s the policymakers who get to decide how they respond to it (especially when corruption and dysfunction in the state legislature make it really difficult to push a clean bill), and it really matters who those policymakers are and whose support they rely on for re-election.

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