September 18, 2013

Cornell Group, Ithacans Advocate for Living Wage

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Chanting “What do we want? Living Wage! When do we want it? Now!”, more than 50 people — including labor advocates and students — gathered Tuesday in the City of Ithaca to rally for a living wage in Tompkins County.

A living wage is the minimum amount a worker must be paid an hour to be able to meet basic needs. Protesters who gathered Tuesday in front of the county legislature said the state’s minimum wage — which is currently $7.25 an hour — is not adequate enough to allow an average worker to live on a 40-hour week in Tompkins County, according to Pete Meyers, director and cofounder of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

A living wage in Tompkins County is $12.62 an hour, according to the Alternatives Federal Credit Union. Though Tompkins County must pay at least a living wage to all of its own government employees, the requirement does not yet apply to contract workers, according to Meyers. As a result, approximately 25 percent of contract workers make less than living wage.

“The contracted workers that are not making a living wage, frankly, are subsidizing the rest of the workers that are,” Meyers said.

More than 1,000 people in the county have signed a petition saying they are willing to support a slight raise in taxes in order for all contracted workers to get paid a living wage.

“If the county appropriated a quarter of a million dollars [toward a living wage], that would be one tenth of one percent of the county’s budget,” Meyers said.

County Legislator Kathy Luz Herrera said it makes sense for taxpayers to support a living wage for all workers because the workers earning below living wage have to get aid from social nets, posing a cost to taxpayers.

“This is an investment in community,” Herrera said at the rally. “Paying contractors a living wage is something we should do as a matter of course. That we have to fight for it shows how broken our system is. I think the legislature is going to come through and understand that to build community here, to build the economy here, for people, not for corporations, we need to pay a living wage.”

Herrera said that, although she views the absence of such a standard living wage as a broader problem in America, she believes there is hope for Ithaca to pursue and institute a universal living wage.

“I think we can do this in Tompkins County,” Herrera said at the rally. “There are a lot of people [here], there are progressives [and] there are people that understand the economy. The economics of it are clear: our system is broken. It’s completely broken, and they understand that, and they’re saying, we need to start paying a living wage to all our workers. If you have a job, and you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to pay for your basic living necessities.”

Local pastor Rich Rose said too much “subcontracted” work is swept under the carpet and being paid for with inadequate wages.

“We’re here to pull the carpet back,” Rose said. “[We’re here] to expose, to talk about the fact that we know about these sub-contracted workers; we know that they’re underpaid. We want everyone paid a living wage. We’d like to see everyone, every retail worker, every county worker, every private and public worker paid a living wage.”

Rose said that paying living wages to all workers would “uphold everyone’s rights.”

“That is upholding everyone’s right: everyone’s right to a living wage, everyone’s right to support their family, everyone’s right to live in dignity, to live proudly, to say ‘Yes, I work hard, and I bring home a paycheck that can help me sustain my life and my family.’ Isn’t that what we want for everybody? Why wouldn’t we want that for everybody?” he said.

Kathy Valentino, former town supervisor and early advocate for Cornell’s United Auto Worker’s union, echoed Rose’s sentiments that a universal living wage can only bring good for the local economy.

“All the money that you put into getting people a living wage comes back to strengthen the economy because people can do more, buy more, live better. It builds a strong community,” Valentino said. “It’s a shame, almost a crime, that our so-called enlightened community of Ithaca and Tompkins county is not there already, and beyond. It should just be a no-brainer for our elected officials and other employees to get us where we need to be.”

Students in COLA made up a large part of the rally, arriving with an array of signs in support of a living wage, with messages like “Living Wage = Moral Wage” and “[County Legislator Nate] Shinagawa [’05 M.A. ’09], we want a living wage.”

“The people of Tompkins County really enable us to earn our education,” Molly Becker ’15 said. “[COLA] stands here with humility and gratitude, and with our full support for a living wage.”

Mike Ferrer ’16 agreed, saying universities can sometimes be “bad neighbors” to their communities.

“We don’t pay property taxes. It’s important that when the workers ask for more rights and for a decent wage, a decent living, that’s something that students should stand in solidarity with. If there’s any power we can lend, we should lend it,” Ferrer said.

After the rally, people were invited to attend the County Legislature’s meeting and voice their concerns to legislators.