Karen Magee: Recognizing The Dignity Of Work

Nov 27, 2015

Three million working New Yorkers struggle to get by on $8.75 an hour – a minimum wage that makes it impossible for families to meet basic needs.

They are the workers who are too often invisible in our society. They work hard, obey the law and do things the right way.

Yet, for them, the American Dream remains out of reach.

Cheryl Rockhill is one of those workers. She’s a full-time bus monitor in a North Country school district and a proud NYSUT member. Even though she supplements her income with part-time work as a short-order cook, Cheryl and her husband – a tree trimmer – live paycheck-to-paycheck. Their combined wages barely cover their house payments, electricity, telephone, heat and gas for their cars.

Like 64 million other low-wage American workers, the Rockhills are just barely getting by.

In recent testimony to the New York Wage Board, Cheryl raised questions – questions that get the heart of the Fight for $15 debate.

Shouldn’t a family with three jobs know where the grocery money is coming from? Shouldn’t two hard-working parents be able to pay the bills each month and, perhaps, have a little left over for savings – or perhaps be able to save for college?

The answer is an emphatic yes.

And that’s why this month’s Fight for $15 rallies were so exciting.

All across New York and the nation, this growing movement focused on the plight of American workers who are living on the margins, just one accident, illness or string of bad luck from economic ruin.

They focused on the essential role of unions as a voice for the voiceless.

And, they focused on the need for fairness, dignity, respect -- and a living wage – for all workers. New York leaders are beginning to take notice. They understand that by lifting up from the bottom, our society can help those workers – and all others up the line. They see that by raising the minimum wage – currently $18,200 a year for full-time work, perilously close to the federal poverty line -- they can reduce government costs for programs that serve those in poverty. They understand that higher wages will boost economic activity in communities all across the state.

The State Wage Board has already recommended that the minimum wage for fast food workers in New York City and rest of the state be increased in stages to $15 an hour.

Recently, we also saw action to phase-in a $15 an hour minimum wage for thousands of state workers over the next six years.

These are all positive steps in the right direction.

The gradual phase-in will allow time for businesses and school districts – hamstrung by the property tax cap and years of budget cuts – to adjust.

But, we must go further. New York must approve a $15 an hour minimum wage – indexed to inflation – for all workers, no matter where they earn a paycheck.

We must take the premise that hard work and prosperity go hand in hand and make it a reality for all workers. Cheryl Rockhill and all those who work hard in our public schools and colleges, and in other difficult jobs across this state, deserve no less.

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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