In March of 1968 -- just three weeks before he was assassinated -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in a speech that one of the great lessons of the civil rights struggle was that it was not just about integration -- but also about economic justice.
"We know now that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters," Dr. King said. "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't have enough money to buy a hamburger? ... What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn't earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?"
Unfortunately, 45 years later, we can still ask those questions.
New York is one of the richest cities in America, but it also has one of the widest income inequality gap in the nation: A report last year found that the top one percent of income earners made 32 percent of the income.
We have far too many hard-working New Yorkers, many of them people of color, working at or below minimum wage, often without overtime and benefits. They work in car washes, fast food restaurants, as airport security guards and in food service and small supermarkets.
That's Why UnitedNY, Make the Road NY, New York Communities for Change and labor organizations like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and 32BJ SEIU supported the workers when they formed an unprecedented coalition across all industries last summer, and held a big rally and march in New York City on July 24.
Since then, there have been actions, a boycott and a one-day fast food walk out -- all of which generated a great deal of public support. Five car washes have voted to join RWDSU; some supermarkets have settled unfair labor practices suits and agreed to pay a combined $750,000 in lost wages and back pay.
That's also why UnitedNY and the Center for Popular Democracy released a report on the ongoing plight of low-wage workers in New York City at a "Workers Rising" symposium on Feb. 13. The report spelled out the problem -- and organizing efforts -- and offered a list of recommendations to improve wages and working conditions for those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
The recommendations range from supporting legislation to allow paid sick days for workers, to establishing a Mayor's Office of Labor Standards to ensure that employment laws are enforced, to urging New York State to allow the City to set a minimum wage higher than the State minimum, due to the higher cost of living in the five boroughs. These proposals are the result of conversations with workers who have struggled for far too long to make ends meet. They are the result of hearing from families who have lost loved ones who could not afford to take time off from work to get the medical care they needed before it was too late.
Hundreds of workers, advocates and community members turned out for the symposium, which featured lively panel discussions about strategies to help lift low-wage workers into the middle class. The energy inside those rooms was electric; the air was thick with hope and dreams.
A gaggle of elected officials was on hand for the Workers Rising event, including two declared mayoral candidates -- Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former city comptroller Bill Thompson - as well as City Council members and others.
The report came just one day after President Obama said in his State of The Union speech that America should not be a place where working people who make minimum wage are still in poverty.
"That's wrong," he told a joint session of Congress. "In the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty."
Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, with indexing tied to cost of living increase. That's certainly a lot better than $7.25, which is the minimum wage at the federal level and in the State of New York, but nowhere near enough in New York City.
The UnitedNY/CPD report said raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour would allow full-time workers to make just $20,000 a year. The report also noted that more than 110,000 full-time workers live in poverty.
Any way you look at it, an increase in the minimum wage is overdue, and needs to be enacted immediately. If it can't be approved on the federal or state levels, those of us here in New York City must find a way to increase it locally. It is clear that $7.25 an hour is not enough to make ends meet, and the time for change is now.
All in all, the symposium helped to foster real conversation between elected officials, policy experts, and the low-wage workers themselves about the economic issues that are plaguing New York's workforce. Symposium attendees left the conference energized, engaged and filled with hope. They would have made Dr. King proud.
Follow Camille Rivera on Twitter: www.twitter.com/United_NY