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A Victory for Workers | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

A Victory for Workers

Watch this space all week for DNC-related posts.

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This past week, the New York State Senate took the historic and long overdue step of passing a bill to raise our state minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.15 an hour. This is a tremendous victory for the more than one million workers who will directly benefit from this increase if it is signed by Governor Pataki. At a time when low-wage jobs are failing to keep pace with price increases, it could literally mean the difference for many families. It's also a victory for the Working Families Party's hard work and the effective grassroots organizing the coalition has been doing for the last six years.

Labor unions, Democrats--even the Roman Catholic Church--joined with the Working Families Party in the fight for fairness and equity. The Daily News also earned kudos for publishing seven editorials in the last five months urging a raise in the minimum wage, and assigning reporter Heidi Evans to do a dozen related stories, including a front-page feature on what's it's like to live on $206 each week. And last week, the campaign won support from a powerful, if unexpected, quarter when the Partnership for New York City, one of the city's leading business groups, urged the State Senate to pass the bill. (The Democrat-controlled State Assembly passed a bill last March.) The business group noted that at the current minimum wage, a full-time worker earns only $10,712 a year, which is below the federal poverty level.

Moreover, a recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute effectively counters claims that raising the minimum wage will hurt small employers. It found that in the 12 states with minimum wages higher than $5.15 an hour, employment levels did not, in fact, decrease as the minimum wage was increased.

But, as Senator Eric Schneiderman (D, Manhattan) , the Deputy Minority Leader and a longtime supporter of the WFP, points out, even with the wage hike's sound economics, it took sustained political pressure, and the threat of possible electoral defeat, to ultimately force Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to drop his traditional opposition to the Assembly proposal.

"The Republican leadership of the Senate allowed this bill to pass this year because they are afraid they will lose seats in the election this fall in districts where the minimum wage increase is popular and where voters have been educated and organized on the issue of raising the minimum wage," Schneiderman said." It is the sad reality that bills don't pass the Senate because they make sense as public policy, or because passing them is the right thing to do. They pass when the Majority Leader sees that the voters may vote out one or more of his members if an issue isn't addressed, and therefore threaten his position as Majority Leader."

That is why it is so important to continue to support the WFP. Launched in 1998, this feisty coalition of community organizations, unions and individuals, has recruited and backed progressive candidates, run local and statewide issue campaigns and used the leverage of the ballot line to hold candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of concern to working-class, middle-class and poor people. Its unapologetic focus on economic justice, its savvy grassroots organizing and ability to give working people an effective voice in the political debate is needed now more than ever. As Jack Newfield put it in an opinion piece for the New York Sun, "Never before has a political party made such an impact on statewide public policy."

Or think of it this way: the WFP's hard work just helped put about a million dollars an hour into the pockets of the working poor. Click here to help the WFP continue its work and click here to add your name to the WFP's petition to New York Governor George Pataki asking him to sign the new minimum wage bill into law.

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