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Cuomo Wants Government "Out Of The Hamburger Business"

The $700 million in public assistance given to fast-food workers in New York each year amounts to a subsidy, the governor said.

Posted on May 7, 2015, at 5:14 p.m. ET

Wilfredo Lee / AP

New York's state government needs to "get out of the hamburger business," Governor Cuomo told several hundred union members, low-wage workers, and Fight for $15 activists in Manhattan's Union Square on Thursday, alongside Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry.

The state's role in the business, he said, is the approximately $700 million it spends each year on food stamps and other forms of public support for the cooks and cashiers employed by fast-food giants. Calling industry practices a "fundamental violation of the promise of America," Cuomo said he wanted New York to stop "subsidizing profits at McDonald's and Burger King," an act of what he called "corporate welfare."

After failing to increase the minimum wage statewide through the state legislature, Cuomo is following the precedent of previous governors by using executive power to convene a board to regulate a specific industry or subset of workers.

In 1986, then-governor Mario Cuomo eliminated subminimum wages for youth workers, and Gov. Paterson raised the tipped minimum wage in 2009. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also previously increased wages for home health care aides this way. In February he used an order by the acting labor commissioner, Mario J. Musolino, to raise the tipped minimum wage to $7.50. That raise will go into effect at the end of this year.

32BJ out in force for Cuomo's #FightFor15 announcement in Union Sq

Elsewhere, California governors used their authority to raise state wages in 1987 and 2000. Portland has raised wages for city workers, and Los Angeles ordered a raise for hotel employees.

In 2013, Cuomo raised the state minimum wage to $8.75, up from $7.25 (it will rise to $9 at year's end). In his latest budget, he proposed a minimum of $11.50 in New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state. He has not mentioned a specific goal for the new fast-food minimum.

Cuomo is acting on state law that "empowers the labor commissioner to investigate whether wages paid in a specific industry or job classification are sufficient to provide for the life and health of those workers — and, if not, to impanel a wage board to recommend what adequate wages should be," he wrote in a New York Times editorial Thursday.

Also in the crowd in Union Square Thursday were airline workers, some holding inflated planes emblazoned with "Poverty wages don't fly." Baggage handlers, ramp agents, and cabin cleaners are rallying today at airports across the country in solidarity with workers at Seattle-Tacoma airport, nearly 500 of whom were illegally locked out of jobs at the airline a decade ago, and rehired as subcontracted workers with lower pay and few, if any benefits.

As Alaska Airlines holds it shareholder meeting today, workers are asking for the wages and benefits approved by City of SeaTac Prop 1, which is currently held up in court.

Airline workers, along with those in other industries, would not be affected by the Cuomo wage boost, but they said they were heartened by the governor's tactic and the fact that it could be applied to other work sectors. Said Prince Jackson, a security guard at JFK who has been organizing with SEIU for four years, "We're all fighting the same fight."

"We want every city and every state to consider the tools they have at their disposal," said SEIU President Henry. "When we unite, we win."