06/09/2014 07:27 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

Political Power to the People

Everybody talks about giving power to the people, but recent events in Albany give us hope that will truly happen in the coming months and beyond.

On May 31, a great and historic coalition of workers, labor organizations and community groups like the Working Families Party, Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, UnitedNY and many others -- with support from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- came together to declare a new day for workers across New York State.

Tired of the legislative gridlock around issues of utmost importance to our communities, the mayor and governor announced they would work to ensure the Democratic majority voters chose last election actually assumes power in the State Senate. That way our state will raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and give cities and counties the power to increase that by up to 30%; pass the DREAM Act to help immigrant college students; enact a women's agenda and create a permanent public campaign financing system to limit the power of big money donors.

This means ending Senate control by Republicans and a breakaway group of Democrats called the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC), which has effectively blocked some of the most important progressive legislation in history through a self-serving backroom deal. I hope those "breakaway" Democrats learned that sharing power with people who oppose important policy reforms that benefit the 99% of New Yorkers doesn't work.

Instead, this new coalition, which includes various labor unions, will work to elect Democrats that remain true to the wishes of their constituents and those who voted them into office, and ensure there are no breakaway Democrats.

If, in the coming months, we can work together to flip the Senate back to true Democrats, we will be on the right side of the fight to help 3 million New Yorkers, struggling in poverty to make ends meet on a meager minimum wage salary. It is outrageous that New York has the highest income inequality in the country, and that our minimum wage lags far behind many other states, some with a much lower cost of living.

Washington State's minimum wage is the highest in the country at $9.32 an hour - and just this week Seattle's City Council voted unanimously to gradually increase that city's minimum wage to $15-an-hour. New York's minimum wage is $8, just 75 cents above the federal minimum of $7.25. Based on a 40-hour work week, New York's minimum wage translates to $16,640 a year, which is below the federal poverty line.

The difference between earning an $8-an-hour minimum wage and, potentially, more than $13-an-hour is life-changing.

Just ask people like Wendy Arellano, a cabin cleaner at LaGuardia Airport who must work three jobs to support herself and her two daughters, 26-year-old fast food worker Frankie Tisdale, who doesn't earn enough to properly feed and clothe himself and his two children, and thousands of 'carwasheros' who try to get by on poverty wages.

One key factor in the wave of increased minimum wage legislation around the country has been the Fast Food Forward movement, which began with a strike in New York on Nov. 29, 2012. The movement has spread to 150 U.S. cities, and 33 countries on six continents.

Those strikes and other actions by New York area airport workers, carwasheros and Brooklyn grocery store workers have put the minimum wage issue on the front burner with the general public. One recent poll found 73% of New Yorkers supported allowing cities and counties to set their own minimum wage.

What has been happening in the streets, state houses and city council chambers across the country is a demonstration of how political power is supposed to work. It is up to us now to keep the momentum going, elect lawmakers who will pass legislation that will help all of us - not just the 1% - and hold them accountable for delivering.

We have the power now - and we intend to use it.