Occupy City Council: Politicians evoke protests to support wage bill


Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito of Manhattan calls for attendees at a rally in her borough (STEVEN GRABOSKI / The Bronx Ink)

Many Americans believe that the Occupy Wall Street movement has fizzled out. Police officers emptied Zuccotti Park in the middle of November, putting an end to a rally lasting months. Some people think that the movement never really had a purpose aside from providing a forum for young adults to get together and voice their opinions.

But now some politicians may have found a purpose for the movement: putting new energy behind their efforts to raise the minimum wage at retail developments.

Evoking the spirit of the Occupy protests, City Council members pushed a year-and-a-half old bill with origins in the Bronx for a second hearing last month. The bill, called the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, is backed by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “This fight started because in the Bronx for the last eight to 10 years, we’ve seen billions and billions of dollars in private and public investment, and yet we are still number one in poverty in every county of the city of New York,” said Diaz Jr. at a Manhattan rally for the bill. “How do we reconcile?” Though the bill never reached a vote after a first hearing in 2010, supporters hope the current economic climate and the attention of the Occupy movement will increase public support.

The current minimum wage in the city is $7.25. If the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act passes, tenants at retail developments subsidized by the city government would be forced to pay a new minimum wage: either $10 with benefits or $11.50 without. These include businesses in the Gateway Center in Mott Haven and the new Yankee Stadium.

As the prime sponsor, Councilman G. Oliver Koppell of the Bronx drafted much of the act. He evoked the nationwide protests at a community board meeting in Williamsbridge on Nov. 17. He asked the audience of around 50 north Bronx residents to attend a rally in Manhattan to support the bill while suggesting that the fight for a new wage had something in common with the Occupy movement.

Other politicians made the same comparisons but went further with their rhetoric. On Nov. 21, the night before the second hearing, supporters gathered  at a rally for the bill in Manhattan’s Riverside Church. “Obviously, we’ve been quite impressed with the Occupy movement, and the spirit of Occupy Wall Street is alive and well in this room tonight,” said Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito of Manhattan during her presentation. The crowd of thousands, including Occupy activists, Riverside churchgoers and other New Yorkers from throughout the city, shouted with applause.

“So having said that, I want to do a mic check,” Mark-Viverito added, signaling the human microphone technique used by many of the Occupy protesters in the past. As she spoke, the crowd chanted with her to spread the message together. “I demand dignity and respect,” they said. “I demand justice and equity. And tomorrow, I will occupy City Hall to demand the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.”

The comparisons to the Occupy movement may play out in the favor of the bill’s supporters. Koppell’s counsel, Jamin Sewell, said the current political and economic climate could give the bill a better shot. He said the Occupy movement made people throughout the country aware of the income inequality issue. “That makes it an environment where people will look favorably on the bill,” Sewell said.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn has yet to bring the bill to a vote or to disclose her opinion on the bill. Opponents, like the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, argue that the bill removes the desire to work toward a higher wage and deters companies from opening stores in subsidized developments. “It scares businesses,” said Lenny Caro, chief executive officer of the chamber.

Occupy protesters supported the act as one they feel will help people struggling during the rough economic times. “These corporations get millions in subsidies,” said David Suker, a member of Occupy the Bronx and a teacher at the Bronx Regional High School. “Why can’t we subsidize New Yorkers with a living wage?”

Ephraim Cruz, a facilitator for Occupy the Bronx, also stood behind the bill because of the difficulties of raising a family in the current economy. “A minimum wage job, even two minimum wage jobs, full-time, doesn’t cut it,” Cruz said. “I’m not saying that’s what people strive for, but with the amount of jobs available right now, people are really struggling.”

Still, the Occupy activists also felt that politicians using the movement’s cause to further their agendas should be careful with their rhetoric. Cruz recognized that anyone can take up the Occupy mantle, since the movement has no real leaders or defined causes. He suggested that there was a difference between pursuing a political agenda and protesting corporate greed. “The people know to look for the Occupy label,” Cruz said with a laugh. “I think it’s offensive, but they have the right to deploy it,” he added. “I think they should have a bit more originality and integrity in their politics, but if something works, keep it up.”

Suker attended the rally at Riverside Church and heard the Occupy rhetoric. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “I’m glad to have supporters, but if their agenda isn’t aligned with ours—totally reshaping how this country works—it could be problematic. We’re happy to have them for now, but they better stick with the program.”

Steven Graboski writes political and cultural stories from New York City. For future stories, you can follow him at @SJGraboski or subscribe to his Facebook page.

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