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Powerful Union Signs on to Living-Wage Bill in New York City

Leaders of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East will push for City Council passage of a bill hiking the minimum wage by 59 percent at certain subsidized developments. Business interests oppose the measure.

November 21, 2011

Days before the City Council's living-wage bill will return to the political spotlight in New York City, the region's giant health care workers union said Friday, November 18, that it was throwing its weight behind the controversial measure.

Officials from the 350,000-member 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East have told City Council Speaker Christine Quinn that the bill is a priority for them, labor sources said. The bill's co-sponsor, Councilwoman Annabel Palma, is a former 1199 member, and the union has long supported living-wage initiatives.

"We've been supporters of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act all along, but the campaign to get the legislation passed has reached a critical phase, and we plan to strengthen our advocacy," said 1199 President George Gresham. "Our members are passionate and proud champions of living-wage jobs. Now is the time for the City Council to do the right thing and help struggling New Yorkers."

The union was the leading force behind a 2002 bill that won wages of $10 an hour for home-care workers on city contracts and views its support for the current measure as a continuation of that effort. The campaign a decade ago initially sought to include subsidized development projects, but that piece was eventually dropped to ensure the bill's passage. As part of the state budget process last spring, 1199 won a more significant expansion of living wage to 60,000 workers in downstate New York.

The bill under consideration by the council would require most employers at some projects receiving city subsidies to pay $10 an hour plus benefits, or $11.50 without benefits. The union's support comes as a coalition pushing the bill plans a Monday rally at Riverside Church led by NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. A Tuesday City Council hearing is expected to attract droves of supporters and opponents.

It wasn't immediately clear how 1199 will support the bill. Gresham and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum met recently to discuss 1199 using its political clout to press for its passage. In 2009, Gresham and other labor leaders wrote to council members urging them to press for living wages at the Kingsbridge Armory, a project the council eventually voted down because it lacked such a mandate.

The fate of the bill is largely in the hands of Quinn, who must decide whether to let it come to a vote. Thirty of her fellow council members have signed on to support the measure, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised to veto. Thirty-four votes would be needed to override his veto.

Opponents of the measure are promising a fight. They've advertised in local newspapers and a dozen plan to testify at the council hearing. "It's no surprise that the same union which helped kill 2,000 good jobs at the Kingsbridge Armory is back on the bandwagon now," said a spokesman for a coalition of business groups that oppose the bill.

The opponents say it would make it impossible to develop retail projects in the outer boroughs. An insider at one firm that bid for the first phase of the Willets Point redevelopment said the project "would be unleaseable," and therefore unbuildable, if the living-wage ordinance passes.

"Any project that has a large retail component will not be able to get over the burden with national retailers," the insider said.

Filed by Daniel Massey of Crain's New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.