New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced an executive order on Wednesday to raise the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour in a move he labeled “a milestone towards a fairer city”.

His plan, which will involve a pay increase for 50,000 workers, will phase in the new pay level for the city’s public employees and workers at contracted agencies by the end of 2018 and is a step towards the mayor’s stated goal of a $15 minimum hourly wage for the whole city.

The city is following in the footsteps of other major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco, although those cities are set to phase in a $15 minimum hourly wage for all workers, not just public employees.

But a buoyant de Blasio, in his progressive element surrounded by low-wage workers and union leaders on Wednesday afternoon, credited New York City with inspiring a movement for $15, starting with strikes by fast-food workers three years ago, that has spread nationwide.

“The issue of income inequality is finally being discussed across the country – a lot of us have been talking about it for years. Just because it wasn’t fashionable doesn’t mean it was wrong. The future of our country is now being debated,” he said in an event in the city hosted by union workers.

He called on state and federal governments to do more to raise wages more widely.

Barack Obama is expected to implore Congress once again in his final State of the Union address on Tuesday for a rise in the federal minimum wage, as he has donerepeatedly. It has been stuck at $7.25 for the past six years.

The wage rise for New York’s public sector employees will be phased in.

“People who protect our children, people who make our parks beautiful, people who take care of their fellow New Yorkers, that means 50,000 employees and tens of thousands of family members will be lifted up,” he said.

Union workers speaking at the event told of toiling for the city yet still not being able to pay for rent, utilities and food for their families.

De Blasio took up the refrain, saying that research conducted under his predecessor Michael Bloomberg had shown that 46% of New Yorkers, or four million people, live “at or near the poverty line”.

“Why should anyone in the richest city in the world have to choose between feeding their family or having electricity?” de Blasio said.

City employees in New York currently have a minimum hourly rate of $11.79.

On Monday, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $15 an hour minimum wage for all state university employees and he is keen to pass legislation making $15 the minimum wage across the state, although he would face opposition from a Republican-controlled assembly in Albany.

Seattle became the first big city in the US to adopt a $15 hourly minimum wage in June 2014. Later that year voters in San Francisco agreed to phase in $15 across the city by the end of 2018, and in December 2014 Chicago agreed to the same.

In June 2015 Los Angeles became the largest city in the US to enact legislation to phase in a $15 minimum wage.

More than a dozen states are set to increase their minimum wages in the coming days and months, with raises ranging from a hike from $9 an hour to $10 an hour in California and Massachusetts to a hike from $7.50 to $8 in Arkansas.

Strikes by fast-food and retail workers began to build momentum in protests across the country in 2013 as hundreds of thousands demanded higher wages in the face of gaping income inequality and the threat of poverty.

Two years earlier the Occupy movement had spread out from New York’s Wall Street, demanding greater income equality for America’s “99%” citizen majority but ultimately fell short of many of its goals.

In April 2015, low-wage workers in 200 cities across the US walked off the job and joined historic nationwide protests in the streets in April 2015 called the “Fight for 15”, demanding higher wages.

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