Cuomo helps low-paid workers come out of the shadows

George Gresham | 10/1/2015, 5:56 p.m.
I proudly took the stage at the Jacob Javits Center Sept. 10 with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Vice President ...
George Gresham

I proudly took the stage at the Jacob Javits Center Sept. 10 with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Vice President Joseph Biden and other leaders to announce Cuomo’s “Campaign for Economic Justice,” which seeks to make New York the first state in the nation with a $15 minimum wage.

The campaign to raise the minimum wage continues the governor’s fight to ensure fairness and opportunity for all hardworking New Yorkers. Just days before the announcement, the governor’s administration approved a phased-in $15-an-hour minimum for the state’s fast-food workers.

I took the stage with the governor and other political and labor leaders to help shine the spotlight on those the economy has left behind, including home care workers, who struggle daily to support their families while caring for our state’s most vulnerable citizens. I witnessed that struggle in my home, because my mother, now retired, was a home care worker.

We thank Cuomo for helping these working poor come out of the shadows. And we also acknowledge the outstanding work of the Fight for $15 campaign, which began right here in New York City almost three years ago among minimum and sub-minimum wage workers. These workers—among them fast-food, child care, airport, gas station, convenience store and home care—engaged in militant actions, including strikes, for a $15 minimum and the right to unionize. The movement eventually went global.

Cuomo’s embrace of the cause strikes a blow against one of the major ills of our time—economic inequality. Some 2.2 million workers will be affected by the increase. They are janitors and cleaners, warehouse and retail workers, nursing assistants and home care workers.

One such worker is Lisa Johnson, a single mother of four and an 1199SEIU home care worker from Queens who works two jobs to make ends meet. Even with two jobs, Johnson has to rely on public assistance, as do many low-wage workers.

In fact, low wages have replaced unemployment as our nation’s chief economic concern. Galloping inequality has dragged down our economy and undermined our democracy. Today, the richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the entire poorest half of the country—150 million people. Real income for the top 5 percent of families rose almost 75 percent between 1979 and 2013, while income for the poorest 20 percent plummeted 12 percent.

The Fight for $15 can help reverse this trend. Biden alluded to it when he said at the Sept. 10 Javits Center announcement that New York is leading the way for the country and that other state leaders will take note.

The governor’s initiative is also about our children and families. And it’s about race and gender. Women, although they are less than half the nation’s workforce, comprise 55 percent of those making less than $15 an hour. In fact, more than half the nation’s African-American workers and almost 60 percent of Latino workers earn less than $15 per hour.

The higher minimum also benefits our nation and our economy. A growing list of economists and employers understand this. A Harris Poll last month of over 5,000 hiring and human resource managers and employees found that 64 percent of employers polled believe the minimum wage should be increased.

Studies also have found, contrary to the warnings of opponents, that employers could readily absorb the costs of raising the minimum.

The rightness of our cause was underscored last week with the visit of Pope Francis, who brought his message of anti-militarism, climate protection, humane refugee and immigration policies and economic fairness to our shores.

One of our New York City welcome posters bore one of Pope Francis’ quotes: “A just economy must create the conditions for everyone to be able to enjoy a childhood without want, to develop their talents when young, to work with full rights during their active years and to enjoy a dignified retirement as they grow older.”

The pope also said earlier this year, “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy; it’s a moral obligation.”

Winning a living wage for Johnson and the millions of others in a similar situation is fair and humane. Moreover, it would help balance our nation’s scales of economic justice and democracy.