Battle over minimum wage increase heats up

Mar 15, 2016

Lobbying for and against the minimum wage is intensifying at the State Capitol, with just over two weeks to go until the budget deadline.

Union workers gathered at a rally outside the State Capitol, where the main speaker was Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“We’re going to get a $15 minimum wage passed!” Cuomo shouted.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo greets union workers after a speech on raising the minimum wage at a rally outside the State Capitol on Tuesday.
Credit Karen DeWitt

The governor has been traveling the state to events packed by local Democratic leaders and union members, entering the rallies on a bus paid for by the health care workers union 1199SEIU.

Before the rally, individual workers came to the Capitol and stood by a display of Franklin D. Roosevelt memorabilia.  The late former governor and president was the first to enact a minimum wage. Etta James of Schenectady, who attended with her small child in tow, says she needs more money to live a good life.

“I would be able to pay my bills without having to choose which ones to pay first,” said James, who added that she’d like to be able to afford day care for her children so she could work full time.

“I’d be able to just live life with my kids and be happy,” James said.

Opponents of the minimum wage also have been busy trying to get their message out, using social media and a direct email campaign.  

Zack Hutchins with the Business Council says the increase would cost more than a half-million jobs, as smaller businesses would have to cut back or simply not hire new workers. 

“Those are jobs for low-income workers, the very same people that folks rallying today claim to be representing,” Hutchins said.

Greg Biryla, with the pro-business group Unshackle Upstate, says 65,000 emails have been sent to legislators in the past couple of days. Biryla, who formerly worked for the legislature, says those emails get lawmakers’ attention.

“You start to take notice when 10, 15 emails come through on the same topic,” Biryla said. “And these are employers in their districts.”

At Tuesday's rally, Cuomo portrayed those who oppose an increase in the minimum wage as powerful.

“They’re representing the corporations,” Cuomo said. “And the corporations don’t want to pay a higher wage. It’s that simple.”

And Cuomo argues that taxpayers subsidize businesses by providing welfare benefits and food stamps to low-wage workers.

Despite the governor’s focus on the rallies, it’s not certain whether the minimum wage increase will be a part of the state budget. Cuomo himself has said it does not have to be included. While Assembly Democrats enthusiastically back the phased-in increase, Senate Republicans did not include the measure in their one-house budgets that are being debated this week.

In fact, Sen. John DeFrancisco, the deputy majority leader, appeared to take a shot at the governor when he spoke against raising the minimum wage on the Senate floor.

“Just because you say it, and you say it loudly, doesn’t mean it’s true,” DeFrancisco said.

But Cuomo says he hopes a noisy rally right underneath the senator’s windows will help change their minds.