Prompted by Growing Fight for $15 Movement, NY Governor Moves to Raise Wages for Fast-Food Workers

If anyone still doubted the ability of workers to organize and win substantial minimum wage gains, those doubts should have disappeared yesterday when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration will convene a special wage board to review and recommend higher wage rates for fast-food workers in the state.

The governor’s move is clearly a response to the growing Fight for $15 movement, which began with fast-food workers in New York City less than three years ago.  That movement has expanded nationally, with large-scale strikes and protests joined by other groups of workers, including homecare, airport, hotel, warehouse and retail workers.

Cuomo first signaled he would take action, circumventing an unresponsive legislature in Albany, in an opinion piece published by The New York Times.  In it, the governor explained that, under state law, his labor commissioner is empowered to propose minimum wage rates for workers in the state and for workers in specific industry sectors – in this case, for workers in the fast-food industry — and that he can enact higher rates by issuing a wage order without needing legislative approval.  New York is one of several states where the governor can take executive action to set higher minimum wages; other states include California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

Just over a month ago, National Employment Law Project General Counsel Paul Sonn urged in an Albany Times-Union op-ed that the governor bypass a log-jammed legislature and act on his own, via a wage board, to raise wages for workers at the bottom of the pay scale. Yesterday, the governor moved to do just that for fast-food workers.

In his Times opinion piece, Cuomo wrote:

“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. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).”

While the governor did not specify what minimum wage rates he would consider enacting, he said he expected the wage board to make its recommendations on those rates in about three months.  Advocates anticipate that those recommendations could include a significant increase in the minimum wage for fast-food workers in upstate New York and an even higher wage rate in more costly downstate areas including New York City and its suburbs.

Previously, Cuomo has been less aggressive in pursuing higher wages for low-wage workers, proposing more modest increases in the minimum wage than other Democratic elected officials, particularly New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who has been pushing for a phased-in $15 minimum for workers in the city.

But yesterday, addressing a large rally with thousands of fast-food workers and supporters in Union Square, Cuomo pulled no punches – calling out corporate fast-food giants McDonald’s and Burger King by name, and slamming them for “corporate greed” for paying poverty-level wages.

Cuomo’s move was hailed by Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, as “a game-changer that will no doubt reverberate around the nation and across numerous low-wage industries.”

“Governor Cuomo’s historic action in convening a wage board to examine and set wages for fast-food workers in New York State bears testament to the power of workers organizing for decent pay and a voice on the job,” Owens said.  “The governor’s move proves that a $15 wage for fast-food and other service workers is no pipe dream.”

“Cynics dismissed their demand for $15 as unrealistic, but the workers have shown what can be achieved by standing together and speaking the truth about their struggle to live on poverty wages.”


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