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Raising the Bottom Line

With the New York State budget expected this weekend, protesters take their case for a living minimum wage to the Capitol

by Erin Pihlaja on March 21, 2013

 

March for a raise: Protesters take to the Capitol to demand a minimum wage increase. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

The big New York state budget reveal probably won’t happen until sometime this weekend, leaving many interested parties in the lurch as they eagerly wait to see if their concerns are addressed.

In regard to the numerous closed-door meetings held between legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Speaker said that, “Hopefully there will be white smoke soon,” an obvious reference to the recent papal appointment. Talks include topics that directly relate to spending, such as tax breaks for the middle class and a raise in the minimum wage, as well as discussions about amendments to the NY SAFE Act, changes to New York City’s Stop and Frisk Law, and evaluations of New York state’s penal codes for drug possessions.

A desire for a hike to the minimum wage bought groups to the Capitol that staged daily protests to put pressure on senators that they say are holding things up. Shouting, “Hey Cuomo, the wage is too low,” and “What’s the bottom line—at least nine,” members of Occupy Albany, the Hunger Action Network of New York state, and the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York state, along with other concerned citizens, marched through the building last Thursday (March 14) to target the lobby of the Senate Chamber, and the offices of Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos and Sen. Jeffrey Klein, President Pro Tempore of the New York State Senate and leader of the Independent Democratic Conference.

“We’ve been working for two years to get minimum-wage legislation passed,” said Sara Niccoli, executive director for the Labor-Religion Coalition. “We needed to be the ones to call out Klein and the IDC for holding back this legislation. If we need progressive legislation passed, and if they’re the ones who get in the way we’re happy to call them out.”

The Labor-Religion Coalition was founded by clergy and labor leaders, and according to Niccoli, focuses on “the nitty-gritty social-justice issues that union members may not be able to take on.” She added that “one of the reasons why the clergy and congregations get so involved” in the issue of raising the minimum wage is that “they are the ones running soup kitchens and feeding programs. There is a significant number of people in feeding programs who are getting breakfast before going to work. We see it all the time: People have jobs, or multiple jobs but can’t feed their families or buy food.”

During the march, Colin Donnaruma, a student at UAlbany and member of Occupy Albany, yelled to the other protesters, “There’s a majority support in the Senate, but the governor is silent. He’s gone silent and missing, but we’d like to tell him, Sen. Skelos, Sen. Klein and his IDC colleagues, that we are here to demand a living wage deal gets done.”

Donnaruma said that while working with Occupy Albany he has seen “a lot of low-wage workers in the movement, and it’s nearly impossible working full-time at minimum wage to make ends meet. People work full-time at minimum wage and still need public assistance.”

Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network, was also at the rally, and said that his organization has been fighting for a minimum wage increase for about two years. “This should have been done last year,” he said. “There has been a tremendous amount of politics played, and the pawns in the whole game are the workers who have still not seen a pay raise.”

According to Dunlea, his organization feeds three million people in New York state a year, and many of them are the “working poor.” He explained: “Some guests in our food pantries and soup kitchens have jobs but can’t feed themselves and their families.”

“Eighty percent of New Yorkers say they want an increase, and we have this all-powerful governor who can make things happen. But we don’t have it yet,” he said. While he hopes to see a resolution passed with this budget, he is not completely happy with some of the provisions being discussed. “They want to do it in three years instead of one, they are opposing indexing, and trying to exclude restaurant and tip workers from the increase.” Indexing the minimum wage means that it will automatically adjust every year to account for inflation.

Niccoli has issues with some of the proposals as well, specifically the inclusion of a training wage. “There are murmurings of exclusions for training younger workers,” she said. “This is exploiting the youth and in a struggling economy where older folks are on a minimum wage, it will be tougher for them to get a job. In situations with farm workers, who are often undocumented, the farm worker’s age is whatever the farmer says it is. It’s an awful idea, other states do not do this.”

Outside of Sen. Klein’s office, the group shouted, “Hey Sen. Klein, what’s the bottom line,” and Nicolli added, “Put your money where your mouth is,” and called his dealings with the IDC and Republicans an “unholy alliance.”

When the group gathered in front of Sen. Skelos’ door, they yelled, “Raise the wage,” and Nicolli addressed the crowd: “He is blocking our way to winning a living wage, 80 percent of New Yorkers—Republicans and Democrats—say raise the wage but Sen. Skelos does not serve the people of New York, Sen. Skelos serves another master called big business. It’s time for Sen. Skelos to listen to the people.”

As the group made its way to the Senate Chamber, their voices echoed in the cavernous building. Signs and any form of protest are prohibited in the lobby, which is open to the public, so the group ditched their placards and lined up in two lines, two people wide. They stood shoulder to shoulder and walked foot to heel, at a sluggish pace through the narrow hallway. Their act was met with the occasional odd stare and impatient brush by, but was a noticeable hinderance to the activity in the room. When they finally crossed the long room and exited out the opposite side, Niccoli turned to the participants and exclaimed, “You just performed a Tai Chi walk as a form of protest and it was awesome!” She later explained that the walk was something that religious groups often invoked to align with their goals of peaceful protests.

Alice Brody, a community activist and member of Occupy Albany who participated on Thursday, said that not passing a raise in minimum wage is “immoral, and saps the economy. If people don’t have enough income to provide for themselves and their family, and are dependent on food stamps, they are not putting money back into economy.”

Still, she is hopeful and said, “I remain optimistic that New York state will do the right thing.” She, like other participants, made clear that if the increase doesn’t get passed, their efforts will not stop.

“Something is going to happen this session,” said Niccoli. “We’ll fight this until it’s done.”

Neither Sen. Klein or Sen. Skelos returned Metroland’s request for comment.