I’m not a political person. I can’t vote in the U.S. where I’ve lived since 1988, nor in Canada, my country of origin.
As a career journalist, a classic news reporter, my role is to observe and listen and relate the facts, not to jump into the fray and publicly express a strong opinion, taking a stand on the record on a hot political issue.
On May 12, I finally did.
A bill called the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act has been proposed; it would require developers taking government subsidy to develop stadiums, conference centers and malls — all engines of economic development and jobs — to require tenants to pay $10/hour with health insurance, $11.50/hour without it.
That means a full-time worker would take home a munificent $20,000 or so per year — $10,000 less than has been calculated as the bare minimum in a place as costly as New York to survive, let alone thrive.
Because my new book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” focuses on the daily reality of low-wage work in retail, I was invited to speak out, and given three minutes to read my testimony to New York’s City Council.
The place was packed!
While a huge protest milled on the streets 14 stories below, some 80 people sat for long hours in a hearing room listening to alternating panels of those for the bill and those against it.
What a revelation it was…The power struggles! The threats! The pleas! The battle of the statistics!
No better theater could be found, even on Broadway.
Three men in costly suits argued against the bill — mercilessly hogging a huge chunk of time away from the rest of us — from the Economic Development Corporation. Their dire predictions of doom were relentless: thousands of jobs would be lost; angry developers would only take their projects to — gasp! — New Jersey or elsewhere; passing the bill would mean, they kept repeating, “a Faustian bargain” in which low-skilled workers would lose jobs to higher-skilled ones.
And all those lost construction jobs! Never mind the deliberately careless mixing of jobs that are union-protected and pay well (construction) with those that are not and do not (retail, typically $7-10 hour with no benefits.)
The hearings lasted from 1:00 p.m. to the evening. I finally got my two minutes (not three) at the mike at 6:00 p.m. — a wall clock with huge red numbers ticking away every second, a noisy blast ringing out twice to signal my time was up.
I argued in favor of the bill. Retail work is one of the few remaining with no emoluments to soften it: taxi drivers, waiters, deliverymen and chambermaids do receive tips. Not associates! Few receive raises or promotions and very few are unionized.
And consider this, from the Gotham Gazette:
In New York City, there are about 34,500 households, representing about 90,000 people, in the top 1 percent. On average, these households have annual incomes of $3.7 million. At the same time, about 900,000 people in New York City — about 10.5 percent of city residents — live in deep poverty. Deep poverty is half of the federal poverty line; for a four-person family, that means an income of $10,500. An annual income of $3.7 million translates into a daily level of $10,137 — more than the average annual family income of those living in deep poverty. According to state tax data, half of the households in New York City have annual incomes below $30,000, an amount that the top 1 percent receives over the course of a holiday weekend.
If New York City were a nation, its level of income concentration would rank 15th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras. Wall Street, with its stratospheric profits and bonuses, sits within 15 miles of the Bronx — the nation’s poorest urban county.
It was an amazing experience, and an exhausting one, to hear everyone from academics to clergymen arguing for and against this plan. I felt sorry for the politicians, weary and worn out yet hanging in hour after hour trying to make sense of it all.
In Australia — I learned recently — the minimum wage is $15 hour for those under 20; $20 an hour for those older. It’s hard to imagine American legislators ever imposing such high standards. Yes, costs would rise…They already are, and workers still struggle in poverty as corporate bosses keep raking in millions in compensation.
Have you spoken out publicly in favor or or against legislation? How did that feel? What was the result?