In 1984, New York governor Mario Cuomo roused the nation with his soaring oratory about opportunity in America. He conjured up an image of two cities on the same hilltop: one a shining bastion for the well-to-do, the other a place where the underprivileged struggled to live, working hard against their disadvantages but often failing because they lacked the opportunities and assistance to find their place in that better city. Didn’t we owe them a chance?
Not surprisingly, Cuomo, a shopkeeper’s son, portrayed his party as the one looking to provide a boost up the glittering side of the hill. It was an unabashed statement of liberal values. Still, politics seemed trite compared with his noble message of creating a pathway from one city to another.
Thirty-one years later, or about eight weeks ago, another Cuomo aired his take on hill climbing and fostering prosperity. If you don’t reside in New York, you might have missed it. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s current governor, portrayed roughly half of you as bloodsuckers, a collective social blight that he felt obliged to address immediately, just as he might take extraordinary action to curb a crime spree or a rabies outbreak. His call wasn’t for helping people at the bottom of the ladder, but instead to hurt, to kick out the lowest rung because, hey, it will snag him votes.
The rot he identified as warranting emergency action wasn’t all employers or even all employers with a large percentage of hourly workers and first-time jobholders. The scourge specifically was those who operate fast-food restaurants. The vast majority of them are franchisees, and we all know how that group was born with silver spatulas and Lexus keys in hand, their prosperity a veritable birthright.
Nevertheless, Cuomo directed the highest labor regulator in the state to assign a task force the mission of plotting a quantum leap in the pay of fast-food workers—and no one else. He wasn’t asking for recommendations on whether the minimum wage should be raised or if it was right to raise the pay floor for just one group. The only variables he left in his directive were how to do it and by how much.
It gets worse. The task force’s advice is due by the end of the month. Then the governor plans to implement the increase, expected by some to top 71 percent, through executive action, not legislation. There’s an arcane loophole in New York law that will enable him to do so.
I look out my window here in New York every day, waiting to spot mobs of restaurateurs marching on the state capital. This situation is wrong in so many ways that outrage should cut across political lines, levels of prosperity and segment boundaries. A devastating wallop will land on a single industry—yours—virtually by fiat.
If only the younger Cuomo practiced politics on the higher road his father trod. Instead, he’s kowtowing to organized labor because of the political might it wields. Unions and groups like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a union that insists it’s not one, were broadcasting self-congratulatory proclamations of victory almost at the same time the governor was airing his intentions. There was no ambiguity about what he was doing.
New York is one of the nation’s largest restaurant markets and a crucible for ideas that later roll through the industry. Think about menu labeling and efforts to ban certain soft-drink servings.
The restaurant industry should be steaming over this detour around the democratic process and resist on principle and practicality. Otherwise, it should forget about a hilltop home and crawl into a cave.