To the surprise and delight of his many critics from organized labor, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday proposed raising his state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Joining him onstage at the Javits Convention Center in New York City was Vice President Joe Biden, who cheered the governor's plan to create a "living wage."
"Every working man and woman in the state of New York deserves $15 an hour as a minimum wage, and we’re not going to stop until we get it," Cuomo said to a crowd packed with union members, criticizing the current statewide rate as insufficient. "It's simple math: You cannot support a family on $18,000 a year in New York state, not to mention have a decent living."
In his speech, the governor lent his official approval to the recommendation of a state panel to phase in a new $15 hourly minimum wage for fast-food workers. That move was widely expected. But Cuomo went a step further by pledging to push for a $15 statewide minimum. He did not disclose further details about the time frame. Biden, for his part, talked in general about the importance of raising the minimum wage. "We need to address the single best issue facing our entire economy, and that’s stagnant wages," the vice president said. "If we increase the minimum wage, it raises income across the board."
The joint announcement marks the latest feather in the cap of the “Fight for 15,” a low-wage-workers campaign backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Since launching nearly three years ago, the protest movement has helped notch new $15 pay floors in major cities, including Los Angeles and Seattle. But before Thursday, no sitting governor had endorsed the $15 figure, which is more than double the current federal minimum of $7.25, and significantly higher than New York’s current pay floor of $8.75. The Obama administration still officially backs a $12 hourly minimum.
"I think the politics have shifted enough that it's safe" to back $15 an hour now, said Ken Margolies, a professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "There's enough momentum."
Indeed, whether these proposals come to fruition or not, they accelerate the leftward-veering winds on minimum wage politics, especially among Democrats. [By some measures, the leading Democratic presidential candidate in both the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), backs a $15 federal minimum. So, too, does fellow White House hopeful Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland.] It all comes as workers nationwide struggle with brutal wage stagnation, a trend that's still rolling on four years after the worst recession in a generation.
The development also marks the latest chapter in Cuomo’s tortured relationship with organized labor. As part of a contentious deal last year to snag a key re-election endorsement from the union-backed Working Families Party, the governor promised to push for a set of progressive priorities in Albany, including an increase in the minimum wage. Technically speaking, Cuomo followed through on his end by calling for an $11.50 rate in New York City and $10.50 for the rest of the state. But when Republicans who control a majority of the State Senate pushed back during annual budget negotiations, Cuomo dropped a wage hike from the bargaining table altogether. Meanwhile, he slammed as a “non-starter” a proposal from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to create $15 citywide and $13 statewide rates. The governor’s office did not respond to request for comment.
The president of New York's 32BJ SEIU, the largest janitors union in the country, praised the move.
"We applaud Governor Cuomo for continuing New York's proud tradition of leading the way on progressive issues and look forward to working with the governor and elected representatives across the state to raise up underpaid working men and women and their families," Hector Figueroa said in a statement. "We know that when working people come together to stand up for themselves, their families and their communities, everyone wins."