Bill de Blasio, Democratic nominee for New York mayor, leans over to listen to a woman at a rally on Oct. 5, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Shortly after 11:30 on Wednesday morning, Bill de Blasio, New York City’s likely next mayor, stood just a few blocks from City Hall and did what none of his recent predecessors would have done without the help of drugs or tickle torture: he pledged his support for the city’s vast fast-food workforce and the scores of low-wage workers laboring beside them. Standing in front of a lower Manhattan Burger King, de Blasio offered praise for the campaign to organize fast-food workers and laments for the industry whose grabby, employer-take-all economics has consigned so many New Yorkers to a subsistence existence. As one initial remedy, he called for New York City to have the authority to set—and presumably raise—its own minimum wage.
“The bottom line is, this is an unsupportable situation where every day hard-working people can’t make ends meet, and the companies involved certainly can do more,” de Blasio said as a squad of fast-food workers cheered behind him, and reporters scribbled notes on steno-pads. “And it is right, it is right, for leaders in government to step up on behalf of these workers and help them organize to win their rights.”
This was not the first time de Blasio had volunteered his voice for low-wage worker rights. As public advocate, he has been a reliable supporter of the fast-food workers’ movement, appearing at labor conferences long before the media cared to follow him and pressing worker-friendly legislation like the recently passed paid sick days bill. During the dog days of the Democratic primary, he spent a week trying to live on a minimum-wage worker’s budget.
But de Blasio’s appearance Wednesday outside a downtown Burger King signaled a potentially new moment for both city politics and Fast Food Forward, the coalition behind New Yorkers fast-food worker campaign. As the mayor-apparent of New York City, de Blasio is not just some scrappy local pol offering a thumbs-up to a worthy cause; he is a rising political power with a broad mandate and potentially national platform (indeed, de Blasio is now one of the highest-ranking elected officials to embrace the fast-food workers’ movement). And, as suggested by the scrum of elected officials clamoring for turns at the mic before him, he might actually have a significant base of elected support behind him.
As Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president who is expected to become the city’s comptroller, observed when it was his turn at the podium, “We have a growing coalition.” Among those who put in an appearance on Wednesday were state senators, state assembly members, several city council members and Letitia James, a city council member who is almost certain to get the city’s second-highest post, public advocate.
The particular reason for their presence this Wednesday morning was the release of a startling new report titled “Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in the Fast Food Industry.” The report was published by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, and its findings have provided some of the first hard data on the economic costs of the fast-food industry’s appalling pay practices. Needless to say the details are bracing. Between 2007 and 2011, 52 percent of all frontline fast-food workers were forced to rely on some form of public benefits, such as Medicaid, food stamps or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, because they do not earn enough money to survive on their own. The cost to taxpayers was $7 billion a year. And all the while, the fast-food business boomed, with the country’s ten largest companies raking in an eye-goggling $7.44 billion last year.
“It’s very disturbing that companies that collectively make billions upon billions of dollars refuse to pay their workers a living wage,” said Karim Camara, a New York State Assembly member from Brooklyn. Like several other speakers, Camara used his turn at the podium to call for an investigation by the state government into the $708 million New York spends each year to pick up the tab for the public benefits fast-food workers rely on since their employers won’t pay a livable wage. As many as 104,000 frontline fast-food workers rely on these benefits every year in New York State.
Tionnie Cross is one of these workers. At 29, she is at once shy, gregarious and, in her words, “poverty-stricken.” As she told her story, she began working at a Brooklyn McDonald’s six months ago, though she has spent as many as five years in the fast-food trenches over all. She had hoped to find some measure of stability in her job (she had just come out of the shelter system), but with a salary of just $7.35 an hour, or between $120 and $160 a week, she hasn’t been able to make nearly enough money to pay her $1,000 rent, buy food, pay her phone bill and cover the sundry other costs of being alive. So she relies on food stamps and welfare and tries to budget her income, though she has fallen behind on her rent and fears an eviction notice will be arriving.
“It’s not enough,” she said simply, as Burger King signs for “Satisfries” and one-dollar French-fry burgers glowed behind her. “It’s not fair when you’re in poverty, working, trying to get more money, and you not really getting enough money to do what you have to do.”
Will the dawn of a new political era make a difference for her? Will it help other workers so that they can buy MetroCards, pay their rent and still afford to put food in their refrigerators? The question is a critical one, not the least because the number of fast-food workers continues to grow rapidly in New York, jumping nearly 30 percent in the past four years alone. The city is now home to 6,600 fast-food restaurants employing 57,000 workers.
New York’s rising political leadership has pledged to support these workers as they attempt to organize and unionize, and de Blasio’s call for Albany to give the city the authority to set its own minimum wage could, if achieved, have far-reaching consequences. But the hurdles are high. After all, corporations evade, Albany thwarts and leaders backtrack on promises.
And yet it was hard to ignore the buzz among the workers and politicians, organizers and advocates as they milled outside Burger King, surrounded by a squall of press.
Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change, which has been leading the Fast Food Forward campaign, acknowledged the mood shift. “I feel like for two decades now we’ve been toiling away in the fields while not having much to show for it because whether it was Bloomberg or Giuliani or whoever, nothing was getting passed for people on the ground.”
But now, he said, the years of toil might finally bear fruit. “It generally feels like we may actually have people in office who have similar progressive values to what we’ve seen all over New York City.”
“I think we’re all excited to see it,” he said.