April 5, 2004

Raising Minimum Wage

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“$5.15 is not enough” proclaimed the banners and buttons at a rally to raise the New York minimum wage held Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. on the Ithaca Commons. The rally, which was attended by approximately 200 enthusiastic students, community members and activists, aimed to raise the minimum wage in New York State from $5.15 to $7.10 an hour. It consisted of four speeches by labor leaders and minimum wage activists and was followed by a march to the Holiday Inn on Cayuga St. to demand higher wages for the hotel’s staff.

The march and rally formed part of the weekend-long “Northeast Conference for A Global Conscience,” which was sponsored by several student and community groups, including Cornell Organization for Labor Activism, Cornell Students Against Sweatshops and the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition. “In the richest country in the history of the world, no one who works for a living full time ought to have to live in poverty,” said Stewart Acuff, national director of organizing for the AFL-CIO, the headline speaker at the rally.

Despite the unseasonably cool weather, a diverse group of students and community members were in attendance for the rally. Banners in the crowd ranged from “Grandparents for a Living Wage” to “Democratic Socialists of America.”

After the speeches, approximately 200 protesters headed off toward the Holiday Inn, holding signs and chanting slogans demanding a living wage for workers at the hotel.

“We want to get this Holiday Inn and all employers to support a living wage,” said Carl Feuer Ph.D. ’83, an organizer for the TCLWC, speaking in front of the Holiday Inn.

After protesting for about twenty minutes and listening to the short speech by Feuer, the assembled marchers dispersed.

Grace Lyall, an assistant front desk manager at Holiday Inn said that no one there was authorized to make any statements. As of the time this article went to print, no representative of Holiday Inn could be reached for comment.

According to Tomer Malchi ’04, a member of COLA who helped organize the events, the immediate goal of both the rally and the protest march was to, “put pressure on politicians” in New York State to raise the minimum wage.

Legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.10 an hour has passed in the New York State Assembly several times in the last few years, said Pete Meyers, an organizer with Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition. But, he added, “Republicans such as [Gov. George] Pataki [(R-N.Y.)] and [Sen.] Joe Bruno [(R-43rd), Senate Majority Leader] are currently blocking passage” of the bill in the State Senate. Meyers dismissed concerns that raising the minimum wage would cause New York to lose jobs to other states as alarmist.

In his speech at the rally, Meyers focused on the local impact of a minimum wage increase. “In Tompkins County, approximately 2,900 workers would be directly affected” by raising the minimum wage, he said, “and another 2,900 would be indirectly affected.”

Linda Smith, another speaker at the rally, and the president of the Midstate Central Labor Council, also mentioned local issues in her speech on the “Wal-Martization of America.” She described how Kinko’s in Ithaca was recently cited by the Department of Labor for erasing worker time cards and making them work off the clock.

“The Wal-Martization of America threatens to turn every job into a low-wage job, and anyone who thinks college education somehow shields you from that — think again,” she said, addressing the Cornell and Ithaca College students in the crowd.

Carolyn Brown, an Ithaca resident attending the rally, liked what she heard. She said that a couple of her friends were single mothers who worked two jobs but did not making a living wage.

Aubryn Sidle ’04, a marcher in the protest and member of CSAS also agreed with the themes of the rally. “It’s really important to draw attention to these issues, right here in Tompkins County,” she said.

Among the speakers, rally organizers and people in attendance, several reasons were given for raising the minimum wage.

“People who work 10-12 hours a day should make a living wage,” said Medea Benjamin, the director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco based advocacy group. Benjamin, who gave the final speech of the afternoon, said afterwards that she viewed the living wage as “a fundamental human right.”

Smith also emphasized the moral reasons for the minimum wage in her speech. When the minimum wage was first enacted, it “was not driven economically, it was morally driven,” she said.

Malchi had a different take on the minimum wage campaign. Raising the minimum wage would encourage personal responsibility by eliminating the class of working poor created by the current low minimum wage, he said.

Patrick Young ’06, the president of COLA, who helped organize the rally, was pleased with the turnout. “Changing the minimum wage is a mass movement that is gaining more momentum than it has ever had,” he said.

“Drop Beats Not Bombs,” a liberal hip-hop group, led off the rally with a concert starting at 12:30 p.m. Addressing themes such as corporate power and the war in Iraq, they drew a crowd of about fifty people. Kavitha Rao, a workshop organizer at the Fellowship of Reconciliation who was in Ithaca for the conference, was enthusiastic about the musical group.

“Art is a really important tool for activism,” she said.

Archived article by Elijah Reichlin-Melnick
Sun Contributor