Party On!

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Perhaps the biggest victory by a third party in recent American politics just happened yesterday, when the NY State Senate over-rode Governor Pataki’s veto of a bill increasing the state minimum wage to $7.15 an hour by 2007. Much of the muscle and all of the impetus for the change came from the Working Families Party, which had made the wage fight its top priority since it was founded six years ago. The party and its activists tirelessly targeted vulnerable Republican legislators (registered Dems do outnumber Reps by 2-1 in New York, after all), and pushed state Democrats into, for once, standing up for progressive values instead of constantly sliding to the right.

I like the way Dan Cantor, the party’s executive director (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine) framed the victory: “It’s a pretty good day for about a million people in the state who will have better food, be able to pay their rent, spend a little time with their children. These are family values.”

And he has a good way of rebutting rightwing arguments that the modest increase will reduce the state’s competitiveness and cost jobs. “The right wing says this any time there’s any kind of societal improvement,” he said. “To their way of thinking, slavery would produce full employment. … We can’t afford not to pay decent wages. It’s a reflection of what kind of society we are trying to build.”

I’m not a total fan of the WFP (it cleaves too closely to top state Democrats; its core institutions–the CWA, the UAW and ACORN, along with several other labor unions and Citizen Action–dominate its inner life, rather than its members and chapters; and it has played more of an inside game than one designed to reach the general public with an alternative vision of politics). And I certainly didn’t care for its endorsement of my local state senator, Nick Spano, a Republican stalwart, over an upstart Democrat named Andrea Stewart-Cousins, because the party felt it had to reward Spano’s vote for the minimum wage hike–even though he is terrible on other issues and Stewart-Cousins is a stand-out. Their race has gone into extra innings, with a judge overseeing a recount. The margin is about 100 votes, and Spano got about 1500 on the WFP’s line. (Cantor said that winning the minimum wage increase, which will benefit an estimated 700,000 New Yorkers directly, and probably boost the incomes of another 500,000, outweighed the prospects of unseating one more Republican senator–but the instrumentalism of the choice irked me and other locals.)

But save all that for another day. What the WFP and its hardworking activists accomplished yesterday in raising the state minimum wage is a hopeful sign in otherwise gloomy times. Kudos.


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