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Governor Cuomo Joins the Fight for Higher Wages in Fast Food

Catherine Ruetschlin

Last month—just a couple of days after NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer provided a thorough accounting of the benefits of a $15 minimum wage in the 5 boroughs—Attorney General Eric Schneiderman laid out the case for how Governor Andrew Cuomo could raise wages for thousands of struggling New Yorkers in a contribution at the NY Daily News.

“The secret’s out,” he wrote, “New York’s Labor Law provides the power to help low-wage workers earn enough to meet their basic needs.” 

In an op-ed at the New York Times yesterday, Cuomo answered the call and became the latest very public ally in the fight for $15. It is only the most recent success for low wage earners on the way to achieving their ultimate goal of trading a day’s work for a decent wage and respect on the job. 

The city took similar action in February 2015 when the Labor Commissioner Mario Musolino complied with a wage board recommendation to order a raise for tipped workers to $7.50/hour to take effect by the end of the year. A comparable ruling that puts the minimum wage for fast food employees at $15 could immediately affect New York’s more than 180,000 workers in the industry and potentially ripple out to more than one million low wage earners as firms compete to hold on to their workforce and recognize that fair pay can buttress spending in flagging markets. 

It is a hard-earned step forward for food service workers who have mobilized the largest labor demonstrations in recent history while simultaneously enduring poverty, retaliation by management, and theft of what meager earnings they are promised.

And that step forward is even more important after McDonald’s walked-back gains promised only weeks ago. Back in April we were celebrating workers’ victories at achieving raises among some retail and food service companies, including McDonald's when it announced that it would pay wages above the minimum at all of its corporate locations. Then on Monday, before that pledge even went into effect, CEO Steve Easterbrook revealed a plan to sell off 12 percent of their total corporate locations worldwide.

As the company casts about for the means to continue financing shareholder payouts that eclipse company profits, employees’ livelihoods are an afterthought.

That’s why the US sets a rock-bottom threshold for the living standards of folks who are working hard to make their way. The minimum wage is a protection from the whims of companies like McDonald’s with the power to dictate wages in the labor market. Just like the price of labor cannot be bargained down to zero, it should not be coerced, compelled, or stolen in order to impose wages that deplete the workforce and strangle Americans’ chance to thrive.

That’s why Governor Cuomo will exercise our provision to ensure that fast food workers are treated fairly in New York. That’s why, as he noted in the Times,

“State law empowers the labor commissioner to investigate whether wages paid in a specific industry or job classification are sufficient to provide for the life and health of those workers — and, if not, to impanel a Wage Board to recommend what adequate wages should be.”