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Fast-food workers just won a huge and unexpected victory in New York

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  1. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday evening that he will raise the minimum wage for the state's fast-food workers.
  2. The announcement came in the unusual form of a New York Times op-ed.
  3. Cuomo plans to exploit a provision of 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."
  4. The current minimum wage in New York state was raised to $8.75, set to rise to $9 by the end of the year because of a 2013 law Cuomo signed.
  5. In his latest budget, Cuomo proposed a further increase to $10.50, with a special higher $11.50 minimum wage in New York City.
  6. Given Cuomo's record of aloofness from progressive economic causes and the specific focus on minimum wage workers, this is clearly a victory for the "Fight for $15" activist campaign, though Cuomo does not mention it.
  7. Cuomo has said he will create a board to recommend an increase, but gave no indication of what number he is hoping to see.

New York state politics is in disarray

The backdrop for this move is a political scene that is currently in total disarray. In January, longtime State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, was arrested on corruption charges. On Monday, the not-so-longtime State Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, was arrested on corruption charges.

Both arrests were ordered by US Attorney Preet Bharara, who is picking up the pieces left behind by a state ethics commission that Cuomo disbanded. There is some thought that Bharara would ultimately like to go after Cuomo and members of his administration.

Obviously none of this is literally related to the minimum wage issue.

But on the one hand, the environment has left Cuomo in need of allies, and forging a firmer alliance with labor groups and liberals will do the trick. On the other hand, it's created a situation in which the legislature is not well-positioned to oppose a gubernatorial power grab. Skelos has not quit his post, and his Republican colleagues are standing by him, meaning the time is right for a gubernatorial end run.

Fight for $15 is winning

While Bharara's corruption investigations set the macro-political context, the main reason politics has gone in this specific direction is the success of the Fight for $15 campaign.

This is an activist movement essentially founded by SEIU, a large and politically influential labor union, and supported by other liberal nonprofits that have been organizing protests of low pay at prominent fast-food chains, most notably McDonald's, paired with some irregular strikes. The movement's nominal ask is a $15 wage floor for workers in the industry, though the heavy involvement of union groups strongly suggests an ultimate desire to unionize some segments of fast-food work.

In parallel, a legal effort is underway to get federal regulators to redefine the relationship between fast-food brands like McDonald's and employees of independently owned McDonald's franchises. If successful, this would make McDonald's legally responsible for working conditions at McDonald's-branded restaurants, which would greatly simplify efforts to unionize the chain's workers.

Cuomo's fraught relationship with the left

Andrew Cuomo has long had a fraught relationship with the left wing of the Democratic Party, which is quite strong in a blue state like New York. While racking up a very progressive record on marriage equality, gun regulation, and other non-class issues, his steadfastly centrist record on economics earned him the label Governor One Percent.

But the minimum wage has proven, over the years, to be an economic issue on which he is willing to give ground to pressure from his base.

After all, the minimum wage does have two important things in common with same-sex marriage. One is that it doesn't put any new financial commitments on the state budget — indeed, just the opposite, as higher pay should reduce state spending on Medicaid and other social assistance programs.

The other is that it doesn't, at the end of the day, really imperil the interests of the state's monetary elite. In New York state, that first and foremost means Wall Street and high finance, with a smattering of legal, advertising, media, and technology work in the mix. Fast-food franchise owners don't really make the cut.

Last but by no means least, minimum wage hikes poll very well — always a plus for a centrist politician seeking an issue to tack left on.