How will the Fight for $15 reckon with harmful proposals from an unlikely ally?

Among the many progressive movements to gain attention in recent years, the Fight for $15 is among the few that can say it’s winning.

An organizing drive that began with fast food workers and spread across low-wage sectors, the movement has helped achieve minimum wage hikes in places as disparate as Los Angeles, Chicago and Arkansas. Yet its most significant victory came last summer, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo initiated a wage board investigation that raised the base pay for all of the state’s fast food workers to $15 an hour. Taking his support one giant step further, Gov. Cuomo has vowed to push through an April budget measure that would make New York the first state to pass a $15 per hour minimum wage for all of its workers.

But the measure, which may include significant cuts to public higher education, poses a dilemma for the Fight for $15 coalition.

By embracing Cuomo, the movement risks strengthening the staying power of a governor who has shown, time and again, his willingness to hurt the working people of New York as much as help them. On the other hand, victory — that ostensible goal of any and all political movements — is in sight. Thus the Fight for $15’s relationship with Cuomo exemplifies the choice between purity and pragmatism that faces any movement on the brink of legislative success. What happens in this case will set a crucial precedent for progressive movements across the country as they seek to etch their platforms into law.

Strange bedfellows form an alliance on a $15 minimum wage

The national campaign for a $15 minimum wage — then known as Fast Food Forward — began on November 29, 2012, when hundreds of fast food workers in New York City went on strike. The movement, funded principally by the behemoth Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, grabbed headlines with its redeployment of an age-old labor tactic, albeit as a single-day effort intended primarily to build public support. “Going on strike was transgressive,” said Michael Kink, executive director of Strong for All, a statewide economic justice coalition that has supported the movement since its inception. On the ambitious demand for a $15 minimum wage, Kink added: “It was about asking for what we needed, not what we thought we could get.”

Leading grassroots community organizations in New York City, like Make the Road New York, or MRNY, and New York Communities for Change, or NYCC, were involved from the beginning as well. “Most of our members are not fast food workers,” explained Meg Fosque, a lead organizer with MRNY. “But we saw it as an important solidarity fight that would set a precedent for low-wage workers across the board.” For Fosque and her organization, the issue touched not only on economic justice, but racial justice.  “Who is impacted the most by the minimum wage?” she asked. “Blacks and Latinos.” By her estimation, nearly half work jobs that pay less than $15 per hour.

The single-day strikes continued every few months over the ensuing years, spreading from New York to over 200 cities in the United States and around the world. “Strike after strike built up the image in the public’s mind that low-wage workers were trying to get out of poverty,” recalled Kink. Buoyed by a diverse coalition of unions and community groups, the campaign quickly became the country’s most high-profile labor campaign in decades.

Meanwhile, New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, drew ire from the state’s left wing for his support of conservative measures like a 2014 tax cut that slashed New York’s estate and corporate tax rates. Liberal derision of the governor culminated later that year, in September, when Cuomo faced a surprisingly difficult primary challenge from an unknown Fordham Law School professor named Zephyr Teachout, who he would ultimately beat. The following winter, both New York’s assembly speaker, Democrat Sheldon Silver, and its former Senate majority leader, Republican Dean Skelos, were indicted on corruption charges. While never indicted himself, Cuomo saw his approval rating plummet to the lowest levels of his tenure on account of a growing perception that Albany was rotten to its core.

Needing to reconnect with his party’s liberal base and resuscitate his popularity, Cuomo found an ideal partner in the widely celebrated Fight for $15 campaign. In May 2015, he invoked a rarely used wage board authority allowing him to unilaterally investigate and raise the compensation for an entire sector of the economy. The following September, Cuomo ratified the wage board’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all fast food workers in the state. The biggest surprise was yet to come, however, when Cuomo announced his support of a $15 minimum wage for all workers in New York.

If Cuomo’s sudden change of heart sounds too good to be true, it might be. Cuomo has threatened to include some poisonous measures, most notably a cut to New York City’s public university system, in the same budget bill that would include the minimum wage hike. The Fight for $15 movement, and its broader coalition, have a choice: Stand by Cuomo and swallow the cuts or fight back and risk upsetting a key ally.

Give with one hand and cut with another

In late February, Gov. Cuomo led a five-stop bus tour across the state during which he advocated for the minimum wage hike and paid family leave. Traveling alongside Cuomo were influential labor leaders like George Gresham, president of the SEIU health care workers local 1199, and Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, among others. They uniformly gushed about Cuomo’s commitment to low-income, working New Yorkers. “I tell my members I can’t think of anything more important to your lives than to know that the chief executive is willing to stand up and say you have the right to have dignity with your work,” Gresham said in regards to Cuomo at an event in Syracuse. The tour amounted to a very public and unequivocal bolstering of Cuomo’s economic justice credentials from New York’s most powerful unions.

Before stumping on behalf of the “dignity” and “worth” of working people, however, Cuomo betrayed that very constituency with the announcement of a proposed cut to state subsidies for the public university system in New York City, or CUNY, by 30 percent or approximately $485 million by 2018. CUNY comprises 24 campuses and offers an affordable education to 269,000 students, making it the largest urban university system in the United States. Moreover, 75 percent of its students are people of color, and 38 percent of its students are immigrants. CUNY officials have said the cuts would force them to close three schools and raise tuition in order to close the budget gap.

“It’s cynical for the governor to give with one hand and cut with another,” said Penny Lewis, a professor at the Murphy Institute of Worker Education and Labor Studies, a CUNY college. “He’s eroding the lives of New Yorkers in the process of helping them.” Lewis is also a member of the city college system’s faculty union, PSC-CUNY, which has been stuck in stalled contract negotiations with Cuomo for the last six years. Asked if the affection from much of New York’s labor left has given Gov. Cuomo cover to take regressive actions like the proposed CUNY cuts, Lewis responded in the affirmative. “His more progressive measures are taking up the media sphere, and earning him credit with a national audience,” she said. “It makes it harder for us to get our issues across.”

One cruel irony of the dueling minimum wage and CUNY measures is that, if they both go into effect, the low-wage employees who answer the phones and clean the hallways at CUNY schools will be the only workers in New York excluded from the pay increase. In order to fix the loophole, Gov. Cuomo must fund the CUNY system at a level that can pay CUNY workers, members of local union DC37, a living wage. He has shown no sign of doing so. Multiple DC37 members spoke harshly of Cuomo for this reason. Asked about the apparent contradiction between Cuomo’s willingness to raise the minimum wage and his refusal to fund payment for the workers of DC37, Eric Miles, a custodial assistant at Queens College, said he thinks “it’s crap that Cuomo is supporting $15 for others and not for us.”

Meanwhile, in other cases, the workers who will benefit from the minimum wage hike are the very same students who will have to pay it back in added tuition. Alexandra Gutierrez, a third-year student at John Jay College, is a low-wage worker organizing with the Fight for $15, who makes $7.25 an hour plus tips at a restaurant in New York City. “If the minimum wage were raised to $15 an hour, I could work less hours and focus on school,” she explained to the audience at a rally in defense of CUNY last week. “But it doesn’t make sense if wages go up and tuition goes up. We have to raise the minimum wage but we also need to lower tuition.”

Gutierrez was one of 30 workers with the Fight for $15 to attend the pro-CUNY rally. But not a single representative from the state’s largest unions, including SEIU locals 1199 and 32BJ and the AFL-CIO, participated in the event. A person close to PSC-CUNY expressed frustration about the unions “that matter in the minimum wage movement,” which “have already been in Cuomo’s camp” for a while. For her part, PSC-CUNY president Barbara Bowen appears unconcerned about the labor coalition backing her teachers and the CUNY system more generally. “We’ve had a long list of unions here in support,” she said. “Nurses, auto workers, teamsters and others.” Yet one has to wonder whether Cuomo would’ve proposed these cuts had a stronger labor coalition backed the teachers and students at CUNY all along.

The other pillars of the Fight for $15 movement, the grassroots community groups, have taken an ambivalent posture toward the governor. “It’s rare to find an elected official who’s 100 percent behind your platform,” Fosque said. “We’ve disagreed with the governor on issues in the past, and we haven’t stopped speaking out on the issues that we disagree with him about.” The Working Families Party, an influential left third party in the state, has fought in support of both the Fight for $15 and CUNY. One of the party’s New York State co-chairs, Karen Scharff, said the Working Families Party wants “a budget that prioritizes raising the minimum wage, paid family leave and CUNY.”

Seemingly stuck between supporting Gov. Cuomo’s contradictory proposals and criticizing them, these organizations dismiss the notion that it’s an all-or-nothing choice. They argue that the most appropriate, nuanced approach to Cuomo involves highlighting both where they agree and disagree with the governor. To their credit, MRNY, NYCC and the Working Families Party are all part of the CUNY Rising coalition formed to defend the city college system. They have backed up their condemnatory words on the issue with actions. New York’s largest unions, on the other hand, have offered neither adversarial words nor deeds.

The closest the unions have gotten to such remarks has come from their workers. Take Patricia O’Hara, a homecare professional with SEIU1199 set to get a $5 raise from the wage hike, who currently works seven days a week due to the low pay. She expressed excitement about the raise but concern about the CUNY cuts. “I hope college students do not have to pay more,” she said. “When I went to college I had to get a student loan and it’s not easy to pay that back. I hope Cuomo does not do that.”

There’s “a big conflict [in the proposals] on both ends,” said Jermiel Michael, a security guard at the New York Public Library and member of SEIU 32BJ making $11.50 per hour. “I would not want the college to be affected. Hopefully we get everything we want. But that might not happen.”

These critical comments of Cuomo stand in stark contrast to the silence from the workers’ union leadership.

With great success comes great responsibility

The rise of a visible, insurgent American left is indisputable — so much so that its mere mention risks cliche. From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Bernie Sanders campaign, progressive movements are leveraging mass mobilization — online and on the streets — into hard political power. Or so the narrative goes. Yet Sen. Sanders faces a likely insurmountable delegate deficit, while progressive legislative victories have come sparingly, if at all.

This is not meant to denigrate such movements, which have won important discursive battles reintroducing wealth inequality and structural racism into the national lexicon. But democratic dysfunction that weds unequal power to unjust laws has proven as conducive to galvanizing critique as it is immune to meaningful reform. Until the feedback loop between public will and policy outcome gets closed, the system will continue to respond fitfully to those who cry foul, especially when they lack strong institutional or monetary support. As such, tangible political wins have largely eluded the left’s most popular movements.

The Fight for $15 is one of the few exceptions.

At the same time, however, the ingredients that make the movement uniquely successful also make it vulnerable to the quid pro quo power politics played by Gov. Cuomo. While Fight for $15 coalition partners, like community groups, have helped vault the movement to its current heights, it ultimately still depends on the funding and outreach provided by SEIU. Oddly enough, SEIU has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, despite her supporting only a $12 minimum wage. Many say the Clinton endorsement is merely a bet on the horse in the race most likely to win. Perhaps by refusing to directly criticize Gov. Cuomo about the CUNY cuts, the Fight for $15’s union backers are simply repeating that endorsement strategy all over again.

But PSC-CUNY, DC37, and other members of CUNY Rising are doing everything they can to prove SEIU’s calculation wrong. Later this month, they plan to hold a civil disobedience action involving hundreds of arrests, which they hope will garner enough attention to shame Cuomo into retreat. Meanwhile, SEIU and its union allies have no intention of changing course. If anything, they’ve doubled down. Asked if his union would give future backing to Senate Republicans who support the minimum wage hike, SEIU1199 president George Gresham left the door open, responding: “We have no permanent friends or enemies — we have permanent interests.”

The Fight for $15’s narrow notion of those interests has upset some and gratified others. But don’t expect it change. The campaign has been winning, after all.

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