Cornell’s newly reformed chapter of the New York Public Interest Research Group, the state’s largest consumer, environmental and government reform organization, met yesterday in Goldwin Smith Hall for the event “Maximizing the Minimum Wage: An Evening with NYPIRG and the Campaign for the Living Wage.”
NYPIRG, since the early ’70s, has played a key role in over 120 public interest laws and executive orders. In 2002, the organization had over 80 full-time employees and a budget of over $6 million with a total of more than 85,000 members. The organization is entirely student-run.
Speakers for the event included the Ithaca Living Wage Coalition’s Carl Feuer ’54, visiting scholar of city and regional planning, and NYPIRG organization director Peter Sikora ’99.
“The Ithaca Living Wage Coalition is very different from other living wage movements. Others are focused on local government,” Feuer said. “In New York State we are not allowed to pass minimum wage legislation at the city or local level.”
Feuer relayed his experiences raising the wages for workers at a local school board “trying to build community support.” The Living Wage Coalition had drives for letters to the editor and op-ed articles. Other efforts included a parade through Ithaca which Feuer noted “may very well be the largest social justice parade in Ithaca.”
The Living Wage Coalition had the workers’ wages raised from $6.25 to $9.20 an hour. “It was a great success. It really helped build the Living Wage Coalition’s presence in Ithaca.”
Feuer also discussed one accounting of a living wage done by the Alternative Federal Credit Union in Ithaca.
“They asked themselves, ‘Do we pay a living wage? What would it take to support a single adult in a modest way so that they are not dependent on social services?'”
Costs considered included housing, food, entertainment, utilities and medical care as well as savings. It came out to “roughly $8.44 an hour for a 40-hour week of a full year plus health insurance,” Feuer said.
Feuer also talked about the formation of the Workers’ Rights Center, which is “not merely information, referral and support but a way to mobilize low-wage workers.”
“It is there to provoke change in the community,” Feuer said.
One of Feuer’s last topics was the Living Wage Coalition’s hotel campaign, which he described as “a tough nut to crack,” noting that throughout the service sector wages are very low.
“We want hotels to feel some heat,” Feuer said. “It’s wrong to pay $6 an hour.” Feuer went on to say, “We are trying to show hotels, that any hotel which pays the Living Wage will have business thrown their way.”
The second speaker, Sikora, focused on NYPIRG’s efforts to lobby Albany to raise the minimum wage throughout the state.
“[The minimum wage] is appalling at $5.15 an hour. Why isn’t it higher? No credible study out there will show you job losses from wage increases,” Sikora said. “It’s a trifling amount of money [for the employers]. But it’s not a trifling number at the income range.”
Sikora then described what he saw as the dynamic of the state government. “The incumbency rate [of state legislatures] is 99 percent. Your chances of dying in office are much larger.”
“What happens in Albany is a bizarre three-way,” Sikora said noting the power held in the State Assembly by Democratic leader Sheldon Server, in the Senate by Republican leader Joseph L. Bruno and by Governor George Pataki.
“Elected officials care about two things: money and pain,” Sikora said. “We can make their pain go up by using a combination of media work and people power.”
Sikora then described NYPIRG’s campaign in this area for the next year with a kickoff press conference the Monday before Thanksgiving followed by various lobbying efforts all the way until next April.
“All it’s going to take to get Joe Bruno to move the bill is the fear of one of his colleagues losing office,” Sikora said. “Politicians take this immensely seriously.”
“Our strategy is to leave the governor alone and make life unpleasant for the state legislators,” Sikora said. “We are going to be pounding on the State Senate.”
Edward Yoo ’06 decided to reactivate the organization at Cornell after spending some time with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group over the summer. “Cornell is the first major private institution to be affiliated with NYPIRG,” Yoo said.
Yoo said the Cornell chapter has “a great group of people right now” and that their goals for this semester are mainly “building support and membership.”
On the topic for the organization’s meeting Yoo said, “Everyone is touched by wage issues, even students at Cornell.”
Cornell’s newly reformed chapter of NYPIRG meets every Tuesday at Goldwin Smith Hall.
Archived article by Brian Kaviar