Living Wage Law and New York City: A Referendum for the “Bloomberg Era”?

Interior of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. A plan to turn the ex-armory into a mall founded over a dispute between the Mayor and the City Council over minimum wage laws. The dispute has not been resolved as of this writing - in fact, the stakes for both sides have only gotten higher. Image (C) The New York Times, 2008.

NEW YORK – On one side stands a coalition of local legislators and activists; on the other, the mayor’s office and developers. The two camps are fighting over a City Council bill called the “Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act” that would raise the hourly wages of several thousand New Yorkers.

Similar laws exist in other U.S. cities, such as San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Over a hundred cities in the U.S. now have living wage laws. There are already precedents in New York City for instituting a living wage law: three major development projects subsidized by public funds have had to pay living wages to building service workers. And New York City currently has a (partial) living wage law that guarantees living wages for 50,000 healthcare workers.

But despite being a stronghold of organized labor and home to a “progressive caucus” of pro-union Democratic legislators, there is no full living wage here in New York City. The mayor has made it clear that he will veto the bill if it comes before him: “Government should not be in the business of doing that. The last government that tried that doesn’t exist anymore. That was the Soviet Union.” He and the bill’s supporters have been trading barbs for months now.

City Council members Oliver Koppell and Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced the bill in 2010. If enacted, this bill would raise the legal minimum wages of several thousand workers (no one is sure exactly how many) from US$7 an hour to US$10 or US$11.50 an hour. The employers of these workers would have to pay the workers the US$11.50 hourly wage if they do not want to provide healthcare for their workers. If they do chose to provide healthcare, then they can pay their workers the lower US$10 an hour wage. These new wage levels would be called “living wages” because they take into account the cost of living in New York City.

Even this present bill is a compromise because it targets a specific sector of the city economy: developers who accept public money to undertake the mayor’s development projects.

If a developer (i.e., a property owner) accepts public funds to develop property, then it would have to guarantee that its tenants (i.e., retail enterprises) would be paying their workers a living wage. It would only apply to developers who accept tax breaks or subsidies.

Why are City Council members linking public funds and living wages together now? Up until 2010, none of the mayor’s development projects were vetoed by the Council – for any reason, living wages or otherwise. The financial crisis that hit the United States in 2008 precipitated this contest between the mayor and the Council.

The crisis slowed down all of the city administration’s development projects. As it became apparent that developers would not be able to fulfill their promises to complete the projects on schedule, legislators began scrutinizing the projects more carefully. They were incensed that the mayor’s office wanted to sink even more subsidies and extend tax breaks to new projects – even while maintaining these subsidies and tax breaks for the stalled projects. Democratic legislators on the City Council decided that in the light of the economic crisis, they ought to do more to protect people’s incomes.

One of the new projects – the Kingsbridge Armory project – became the tipping point for living wage legislation in New York City. It provoked Ms. Koppell and Ms. Mark-Viverito to link the subsidies and tax breaks to the demand for a living wage.

In 2008, the ex-armory was purchased from the city by a developer, The Related Companies. But as Related began drawing up development plans for Kingsbridge Armory, local activists, including religious and labor leaders, demanded that Related sign an agreement to guarantee that the firms moving into the property would pay their employees living wages (US$10 an hour). Related, and the mayor, balked.

Jamin Sewell, legislative counsel for Mr. Koppell, said that legislators had hoped to come to an understanding with Related. Both sides wanted the development to go through: Related did not want to lose their contract, and legislators wanted the 2,200 jobs the project would create – but only if those jobs came with a living wage guarantee.

Related, pressured by the mayor’s office to cease negotiations with the legislators, decided not to accept the conditions. The Council vetoed Related’s plans last year. The mayor then vetoed the Council ruling, normally a death sentence for legislation in this city because the Council must then secure X votes to overturn the mayoral veto. But the Council’s opposition to the plan was so strong that they then overrode the mayor’s veto. Related lost the project.

This was the first time the City Council had rejected one of the Bloomberg administration’s development projects. Mr. Koppell and Ms. Mark-Viverito proposed the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act following this vote.

Proponents of the bill argue that since developers and large enterprises continually receive tax breaks and subsidies as incentives to come into the city (developers received US$2 billion in tax breaks and subsidies from the city last year) through the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), taxpayers should see a return on this investment of taxpayer money in the form of higher wages for retail workers who are employed on these properties. They do not accept the reasoning that developers and large enterprises need such incentives to tap into the New York City market.

The mayor and his allies disagree. They say the subsidies are necessary to attract development and should not be tied to wage guarantees. They argue that mandating this hourly wage increase will only worsen the city’s economy by increasing labor costs and discouraging development.

The bill’s supporters are working to counter the mayor’s assertions that living wage laws do not hurt a city’s economy or reduce employment, but in fact lift people out of poverty, citing studies by think tanks of other major cities, like San Francisco and Pittsburgh, that have living wage laws. These studies, by think tanks such as the Berkeley Labor Center and the Center for American Progress conclude that living wages do not harm the economy or deter investment by developers. John Petro of the Drum Major Institute, an economic research institute based in New York City, who has testified before the City Council on living wage laws, said, “there is no evidence out there that says a living wage is going to hurt the city economy.”

Of course, legislators are not hopeful that their evidence will change the mayor’s mind, as his office has commissioned a US$1 million study by a consulting group, Charles River Associates, to contest the conclusions of economists like Mr. Petro. They are developing their case to ensure that they can secure enough votes in the City Council to pass the bill and override the mayor’s anticipated veto.

The likelihood of the bill becoming a law is very uncertain. To pass a vote or override a mayoral veto, 34 “yes” votes [out of the 51 members on the Council] are required: only 29 “yes” votes have been secured. The Five more votes that are required include the vote of Speaker Christine Quinn, the leader of the Democratic caucus in the Council. Proponents of the legislation are especially worried about her vote since she has, so far, refused to comment on the legislation.

Even though she is just one of five votes, as the Speaker of the City Council, she has more influence over other members because of her position. She has procedural control over hearings and votes, so the bill cannot go anywhere without her agreeing to hold a vote on the measure. And council members are more likely to vote in line with her because of her leadership role, so her support would solidify Democratic Party support for the measure.

Most worrisome for the legislation’s supporters, however, is the strength of the opposition. Proponents of the legislation described the “real estate-development lobby” as the strongest lobby in city politics.

According to Mr. Petro, “the developer/real estate lobby wields vast power over elected officials. I don’t want to underestimate the power and the will of the ‘business lobby’ to crush laws like this one. They’re clearly motivated and willing to put [a lot of money] behind their efforts. That money can’t be matched by labor unions.”

The bill will be publicly debated at a hearing this April. There is no word yet on whether or not the legislation will be put to a vote in the City Council.

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Debate Over Possible Wal-Mart Opening in New York City Continues

Anti-Wal-Mart protester in Lower Manhattan. The protester is using blue tape as an ironic comment on Wal-Mart's "blue light" savings specials. Wal-Mart's opponents contend that the retail giant will harm consumers and works if it is permitted to open a store in New York City. Image (C) NYJWJ, 2011.

NEW YORK – Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, known for its megastores in suburbs and smaller towns, has been rebuffed by residents and union activists in New York and other large cities across the United States. But buoyed by a successful incursion into Chicago last year, it is now trying again to stake a claim in the New York City retail market.

However, on February 17th, 2011 at the latest in a series of public hearings attended by some of Wal-Mart’s most vocal critics, it declined to send a representative to speak on its behalf. Instead, two men, who declined to identify themselves, distributed folders at the hearing with the Wal-Mart imprint on them. They contained a list of polling data suggesting that citywide, union members, consumers and small businesses overwhelmingly welcomed Wal-Mart.

The company says it will not take part in any hearings until every national retail chain operating in the city is subjected to similar scrutiny. Stephen Restivo, Walmart’s community affairs director, said: “I don’t recall a similar hearing in the history of New York City in terms of being focused on one business,” he said.

So why has the world’s largest retailer so far failed to open a single store here?

“Wal-Mart can enter without . . . any permission by the city,” explained Tom Angotti, professor of urban studies at Hunter College. [In that case, why hasn’t it opened a store? You posed a key question, yet you don’t actually answer it in this piece.] He noted that there are laws the City could pass that would keep Wal-Mart out, but such legislation would affect all the major retailers in the City.

The political debate is heated. Councilman Charles Barron, who represents East New York, called Wal-Mart a “plantation of retail slavery.” Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the hearing organizers, said that “This is class warfare!,” a statement that drew sustained applause from the audience.

Wal-Mart is promising to create jobs at a time when citywide unemployment stands at 8.3%. And east New York has some of the highest crime and unemployment rates in the city. Up to 60% of young men (ages 18-25) are unable to find work, according to Chris Banks, the founder and director of East New York United Concerned Citizens, a local community group.

Mr. Banks strongly supports Wal-Mart. “My decision to support Wal-Mart is solely based on the fact that in the past eight, nine years I have not seen any economic growth in the community or leadership on it.” To Wal-Mart’s critics, Mr. Banks says, “I don’t see anybody else creating jobs. If they can bring jobs, I’m going to support that.”

Mr. Restivo stated that a Wal-Mart store creates, on average, 300 jobs in a community. “Our wages and benefits are as good if not better than those at our competitors,“ he added.

City Councilman Eric Ulrich, the lone Wal-Mart supporter at the Council hearing, said, “In this economy there’s no such thing in as a bad job. I don’t think it’s the government’s role to stand in the way of economic development.”

However, Wal-Mart’s critics are not accepting Mr. Ulrich’s or Mr. Restivo’s reasoning. “This whole argument, that we need competition and we need Wal-Mart doesn’t go together. Wal-Mart is a monopoly,” said Mr. Angotti. Critics assert that Wal-Mart kills three jobs for every two it creates. Mr. Restivo disagreed with these claims: “you’ll see small, medium and large businesses coexisting” around any New York City Wal-Mart store.

Chants of “We want jobs!” went up from the few pro-Wal-Mart demonstrators who congregated outside of the hearing. Several of these pro-Wal-Mart protesters said that they traveled outside of the City to shop at Wal-Mart. The unemployed among them said they would apply to work at Wal-Mart if opened a store in East New York. A larger crowd of anti-Wal-Mart protesters stood in front of the building where the hearing was held, chanting “Wal-Mart cheats, Wal-Mart hates, Wal-Mart discriminates!”

Pro-Wal-Mart demonstrator Lawrence Anderson said that he was supporting Wal-Mart “because we need jobs, lower cost products [and] jobs.” Some of his fellow demonstrators said they were unemployed and would gladly apply to work at an East New York Wal-Mart store. Mr. Banks echoed this sentiment in a phone interview: “at the end of the day, the people in East New York care the most about their wallets.”

Mr. Angotti believes that precedent for national retailers coming here favors Wal-Mart: “In the last ten years . . . the [mayor’s office] has moved more and more to become the strong advocate of private developers. They have been able to overwhelm the opposition with their propaganda and their funding.”

The outcome of this fight ultimately comes down to whether Wal-Mart decides to open a store here or not. Mr. Restivo said that Wal-Mart has not yet committed itself to opening a store here and that it is “evaluating” its options in the Greater New York metropolitan area.

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Italian-Made Tanks Sold to Qaddafi between 1982 to 1992 Deployed by Libyan Army outside of Benghazi; New York Times, Al Jazeera Show Images of Oto Melara “Palmaria” Self-Propelled Howitzers Destroyed by UN Airstrikes

By Paul Mutter

NEW YORK – On March 21, 2011, the New York Times displayed online a photo of several Libyan Army vehicles said to have been destroyed by the multinational coalition enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Below is the photo:

The tracked vehicle in the background be a “Palmaria,” a self-propelled howitzer that the Libyans began receiving deliveries of in 1982 from the Italian defense contractor Oto Melara. Libya is thought to possess around 160 “Palmarias.”  It is unknown if, and when, deliveries of the “Palmaria” to the Libyan Army stopped – though the deliveries almost certainly ended on or before the UN arms embargo of Libya was enacted in 1992. Image (C) The New York Times Company, Patrick Baz/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images, 2011.

The tracked vehicle in the background (with several individuals standing atop) strongly resembles the Italian-made “Palmaria” artillery system. Delivery of these weapons began in 1982 – the Oto Melara Palmaria 155-mm Self-Propelled Howitzer. A second photo, from, of a damaged Libyan Army vehicle also greatly resembles the “Palmaria,” as does a third photo from Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Finally, a video from Al Jazeera, which was taken in the same area as the New York Times photo was, clearly shows several “Palmarias” destroyed by the UN as they were bombarding the Libyan city of Benghazi, a major rebel stronghold.

Libya ordered 210 of these vehicles from Oto Merala, an Italian defense contractor. Libya is believed to possess 160 “Palmarias” from this order, which was not fulfilled by the time manufacture of the “Palmaria” ceased in the early 1990s.

Pictured: A “Palmaria.” Is this weapons system being used by Qaddafi in his actions against the rebels? And have UN forces destroyed these vehicles in the course of enforcing the “no-fly zone” in Libya? Photo (C)

The status of the 1982 export arrangement has not been commented on by Oto Melara, the Qaddafi government or the Italian government. According to, production of the vehicle ceased in the early 1990s, so the export order was probably halted when UN Security Council Resolution 748 imposed an international arms embargo on Libya over the Lockerbie Disaster inquiries.

It is not yet known exactly when the sale of “Palmarias” to Libya ceased, though the available evidence suggests that the sale was conducted legally.

However, the possible deployment of these vehicles is yet another unpleasant reminder for Italy, other EU states and even the U.S. of their more recent arms deals with Qaddafi’s regime.

Arms embargoes limited Libya’s ability to purchase advanced weapons systems through the 1980s and 1990s (this probably explains why Libya in known to only possess 160 “Palmarias” when 240 were originally ordered).

A thaw in Western-Libyan came in 2004, when the regime disclosed its nuclear program and assisted in the international sting to dismantle the A. Q. Khan network selling nuclear expertise to non-nuclear states. The arms embargoes were lifted in 2004. Since then, EU members have been engaged in numerous arms deals with Libya, some of them worth several hundred millions Euros.

Italian companies have, since 2004, signed contracts with the Libyan government of Muammar Qaddafi totaling €107.7 million (US$153.2 million). They are by no means alone, though – French, German, Belgian and UK firms have signed arms deals with the regime as well since 2004.

In Italy, Oto Melara has been at the forefront of these post-2004 export deals.

Founded in 1905 as an arm of British armaments manufacturer Vickers, Oto Melara has since 1985 been a member of the multi-billion Euro industrial conglomerate know as the Finmeccanica Group, “Italy’s major defence industry player and one of the biggest aerospace and defence groups operating in Europe.” The Italian-based Finmeccanica Group is partly owned by the Italian government and is a major player in the EU and international arms markets.

Finmeccania has had dealings with the Libyan government in the past: a 2009 fiscal report from the Group mentioned the fulfillment of “the order from Libya to build a major border control system” by some of the firms within the Group.

Oto Melara, the Libyans and the Italian government have not commented on the possibility that the “Palmarias” have been deployed by either Qaddafi loyalists or rebels – or if the UN air strikes have taken out any of the “Palmarias.”

Most of Libya’s heavy weapons, including the artillery that has been used against rebel forces in the past few days, are Soviet-made equipment that the country obtained from the USSR during the Cold War (Russia has been working with Libya to refurbish its ageing Soviet equipment).

The “Palmarias” likely account for 36% of the Libyan Army’s self-propelled artillery complement. Oto Melara’s “Palmarias” are the most numerically significant non-Soviet artillery pieces in Qaddafi’s hands.

The Italian daily Corriere Della Sera, the EU Observer, the UK-blog “Liberal Conspiracy” and several other European media outlets, including the prominent German magazine Der Spiegel, have recently made note of Oto Melara’s (and other firms’ deals) with the Libyan regime.

The impact these disclosures may have on the UN action against Qaddafi’s regime remains to be seen – but disagreements among EU states over this campaign are already apparent.

It has not been confirmed, by the UN or anyone else, that Oto Melara’s “Palmarias” have been deployed by the Libyan Army in the present conflict, but if so, then Oto Melara  – and the Italian government, which supports the UN “no-fly zone” – may face some awkward questions over their arms deals with Libya as this conflict continues.

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“This is What Democracy Looks Like!”

Outside the Madison Capitol, a labor protest shirt hangs from the neck of a statue.

In Madison, thousands protest Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union bill as the labor movement embraces a new political strategy.

By: Juan Victor Fajardo

MADISON, Wis.—More than 100,000 people gathered around the state Capitol last Saturday to protest the back-door passing of an anti-union bill that will end the collective bargaining rights of organized labor groups in Wisconsin.

The protest drew the largest crowd yet of what is now a month-long series of rallies, sit-ins, and overnight vigils at the government building in the center of town, local authorities said.

Young and old, protesters welcomed home the 14 Democratic state senators who, in an attempt to halt the passing of the bill, fled Wisconsin to the neighboring state of Illinois for almost three weeks. Although Wisconsin’s Republican senators managed to pass the bill in a controversial legal maneuver, the fleeing 14 have become local celebrities of sorts. Now known as the “Fabulous 14,” they are Wisconsin’s new, if unlikely, labor heroes.

“This is what democracy looks like!” roared the thousands of students, teachers, and workers in hard hats surrounding the Capitol. “Enough is enough!” they chanted. “This is our house!”

The clamor echoed for blocks in Madison, where quiet signs of political protest littered the city.

The words “Strike Now!” were spray-painted on the walls of local grocery stores and coffee shops. A sign on a fraternity house read: “The Bro-Op Supports Workers Rights.” The marquee of the Orpheum Theater on State Street jokingly advertised Governor Scott Walker’s lead roll in the movie “Total Recall.”

For weeks, the struggle for collective bargaining rights in Madison has centered on mass mobilizations and on conquering the city’s public spaces. As of last Sunday, however, a new, more effective political strategy has been on the move.

Teacher unions and other organizing groups are currently focused on collecting enough signatures to recall Republican state representatives from their posts and repeal the union-bashing bill.

Due to state regulation, the recall process could take as little as three weeks in the case of some senators and up to a year in the case of Governor Walker himself, who is seen as the leader of a full-blown attack on the working class of Wisconsin.

State representatives must have held their post for one full year before the can legally be recalled.  In order to activate the recall process, the labor movement must gather the signatures of 25 percent of those who voted to elect the representatives in their last elections.

The morning after Saturday’s protest, students and workers took to their phones and cars  to gather the signatures. Some dialed numbers from call centers in Madison while others drove out to the state’s most remote electoral districts to reach distant voters.

As canvassing crews drove away from Madison on Sunday, a tense calm overtook the city.  Slowly everything returned to normal.

Couples walked their dogs, a group of marathon runners sped past the university campus, and children perched along the city’s main streets to watch the Saint Patrick’s Day parade.

Outside the Capitol, a bronze statue stood in all of its stately glory with a crumpled red T-shirt hanging from its neck. “We are all Wisconsin!” the T-shirt read, and that too was part of this Midwestern town’s new “normal.”

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New York is on the brink of a data revolution, but will it help the average Joe?

In a dilapidated office on the edge of Chinatown, a group of geeks was plotting a revolution. It will be a quiet revolution, when it comes, but it could change the way New York City and the state are run.

The geeks are members of Open NY, a loosely affiliated group of programmers, activists and city legislators. Noel Hidalgo, one of the group’s organizers and a member of the state senate staff, regularly digressed from the meeting’s agenda, launching into speeches about the importance of their cause.

Gale Brewer, a city council member, had the evening’s biggest news. An open data bill she is sponsoring is slated to clear the council by the end of the year, she said.

The city carefully collects data on everything from the location of parks to daily traffic updates. But until recently the city was unable, or unwilling, to share. Citizens can submit freedom of information requests to access data, but they must pay the city for the time it takes to find and format the information.

A group of community organizers allied with the geeks are trying to turn that “can” into “want”. Getting the public to take control is the vital second piece in the puzzle, and one that, in many ways, is trickier to solve.

But, just like Napster changed the way music is sold and Facebook changed the definition of friendship, the hope is that open data can harness the Internet’s power to change the way cities and the regions they inhabit are governed.

John Tolva, IBM’s director of citizenship and technology, sees a world on the verge of a necessary change.

“There is no such thing as a city,” he said, “except politically. Our methods of organization are inadequate but data can fill the gaps.”

An audio piece accompanying this story can is on my Tumblr.

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Podcast: The Religious Left


Photo: Flickr/Kyle Mahan

As promised yesterday in class, here’s my first attempt at creating a podcast, posted to my tumblr page. It’s deliberately informal, and would have ideally been one in a series.  I like large sample sizes.


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Grameen America expands grassroots lending program for U.S. urban poor

New York — Manhattan, the site of Grameen America’s fourth and newest office, seems a stark contrast to the cluster of villages in Bangladesh where rural economics professor Mohammed Yunus began giving out small loans to poor women entrepreneurs in 1976. But Yunus and his staff say that Grameen’s lending model has worked so well in their three New York locations and their Omaha, Nebraska center that they are currently fundraising to open branches in San Francisco, Washington and five other cities across the United States.

Grameen, “village” in Bangladeshi, has become the most prominent brand name in the flourishing world of microcredit — the practice of granting small-scale loans to help impoverished people start or expand their own businesses. Yunus, whom many refer to as the “father of microcredit,” received the Nobel Peace Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, among dozens of other awards, for his organization’s efforts to alleviate poverty in developing countries. But when Grameen opened its first office in the New York borough of Queens in early 2008, its entrance into the U.S. market was nonetheless considered a bold move.

At the Manhattan branch’s opening ceremony on May 17, Yunus explained why Grameen’s work is needed at the center of the global business world: “New York City is the world capital of banking. In these skyscrapers that New York built, they control world finance. What I pointed out is that they do the banking with the world but they don’t do the banking with their neighbors. We are here to show that there is nothing wrong with doing banking with neighbors.”

By “neighbors,” Yunus meant the roughly 825,000 adults in New York City who lack access to regular banking services such as checking and savings accounts, credit cards and loans. Thirteen percent of households in Manhattan alone are “unbanked,” many of these in the neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights, according to a Citywide Financial Services study published in February.

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