In a state notorious for a do-nothing legislature and a stubbornly huge income gap, you’d think that giving the poorest workers a 60 percent raise would be a political non-starter. Certainly, when a group of fast-food workers in New York City launched a hardscrabble protest campaign in 2012 to demand $15 an hour and a union, they knew their proposition seemed almost laughable.
But today, the 99 percent can savor a small victory, as Governor Andrew Cuomo launches a plan to raise fast food workers’ pay to up to $15 an hour in one sweeping executive action. Last week Cuomo rolled out a new Wage Board, featuring three high-profile appointees tasked with reviewing labor conditions in the industry, with a mandate to secure “honor and justice” for the state’s 200,000 fast-food workers. The three-month review process—to include public hearings across the state—will result in a recommendation from the board in July for potential wage reforms, which are designed to “not require legislative approval.”
The three-member board includes Kevin Ryan, head of Gilt and vice chair of Partnership for New York City (representing business), and SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Mike Fishman (labor), and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (“the public”). No actual fast-food workers sit on the board, but SEIU is the main funder of Fight for 15. And it will be representing not just non-union fast-food workers but the interests of union members in low-wage sectors like home healthcare, who have joined the wage protests.
As an executive-empaneled body, New York’s Wage Board structure allows the governor to immediately push through a wage hike that would likely horrify Albany Republicans, mirroring Obama’s recent executive actions for federal contract workers, which have boosted wages and other labor protections by circumventing the congressional horse trade.
The measure has fiscal as well as moral justifications: Fast-food workers are massively dependent on public programs like food stamps—income supports they presumably wouldn’t need if the industry spread its revenues more evenly to impoverished front-line workers, instead of subsidizing exploding salaries of burger-chain CEOs. According to University of California-Berkeley researchers, in New York, home to some of the highest income gaps in the nation, “60 percent of all fast food workers have at least one family member on welfare”—topping the rate for all fast food workers nationwide of 52 percent. And with its soaring cost of living, the state “ranks first in public assistance spending per fast-food worker, at $6,800, which costs taxpayers $700 million annually in public assistance.”