Living wage or wage slavery: de Blasio vs. Lhota on the dignity of labor

The election for mayor of New York is less that a month away and Bill de Blasio’s lead in the polls appears insurmountable. Joe Lhota has now come out against de Blasio’s plan for a living wage to New Yorkers working at projects that are subsidized by the city. This proposal has aroused the ire of the business and real estate interests and Lhota has jumped on their bandwagon.

The minimum wage is set by law, in the U.S. and New York State it is $7.25 per hour. The living wage is supposed to meet the basic needs of a worker. In New York City a living wage of $12.75 an hour would supposedly cover these needs according to a recent study by MIT. Actually, a living wage of at least $15.00 an hour is what the fast food workers have been striking for and should be a minimum for all workers.

Who is supposed to make up the difference of $7.75 between the legal minimum and the amount needed for the basics? This is what the “safety net” is for, i.e. food stamps (SNAP), Medicare, WIC and other state sponsored programs. The general tax revenues of the state provide the money to the working poor that business would have to provide in higher wages. This is about five percent of total federal government spending (individual state funding has been excluded). Contrast this with the almost 7.5 percent of the federal budget that went as direct subsidies and other forms of welfare to the American business community.

Republicans should be very happy to vote for a living wage as one of their heroes, Adam Smith, would have supported it since he wrote in The Wealth of Nations:

“Servants, laborers, and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.” (from Book 1 Chapter 8 “The Wages of Labour.”)

I don’t think there are many who would accuse Adam Smith of being a “socialist.”

The U.S. is a member of the United Nations and so subject to Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says:

“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

“Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”

“Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

De Blasio is supporting a living wage of $11.75 per hour ( $3.25 lower than the $15.00 currently demanded) and this only for workers employed by those companies getting tax subsidies and/or other forms of welfare from the city. The City Council has already passed a $10.00 per hour fair wage for such workers – over the veto of billionaire Mayor Bloomberg (who won’t ever have to worry about a living wage), so de Blasio wants to throw in another $1.75 (should be $5.00, I think).

Joe Lhota, the one-percenters’ candidate, is opposed to any living wage increase for workers but favors big subsidies to private businesses – such as Fresh Direct the grocery delivery company (as an incentive to stay in New York.) The Wall Street Journal (“Living-Wage Fight Seen With de Blasio”- 10-7-2013) quotes the Republican candidate as saying, about the living wage, “Bill and I really disagree about that. I think jobs are very important. I think we need to get as many people employed as possible. By putting a restriction on that how does anybody possibly win?”

The point of the living wage is, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to ensure “an existence worthy of human dignity.” The question to Joe Lhota and all his Republican and conservative buddies is “By putting a restriction on that how does anybody possibly win?”

If Joe Lhota is New York, New York is in a lot of trouble.

Photo: Joe Lhota. Seth Wenig/AP


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.