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Living Wage Battle Spreads Acros City
The Indypendent
Diane Krauthamer

December 15, 2010
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The Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst received $48 million in city tax breaks from 2004 to 2009 and is rated as one of the ten most profitable malls in the country. It's bustling with activity again this holiday season, yet most of the 3,100 workers in the mall's 70 stores earn at or near the minimum wage.

“The amount I’m making is not enough to support my family,” said Larry Traore, a 48-year-old father who works as a full-time sales associate at a JC Penney store in the mall, earning $8.96 an hour after his health care costs are deducted. Larry, who asked that his real name not be used, has been working at JC Penney for six years and lives in a small apartment in Lefrak City, Queens. He provides financial support to his eight-year-old child and his wife who cannot find work. “I have to pay for their basic needs, like food and rent, and it’s always a struggle.”

Workers like Larry may not have to worry for too much longer. Labor, community and religious groups from all five boroughs have formed Living Wage NYC, a coalition to achieve living wages for workers whose jobs are created through economic development subsidies—tax breaks and other forms of city assistance that supports development projects similar to the Queens Center Mall. Implementing higher wage standards in subsidized developments will have a significant impact on retail and food workers throughout New York.

Leading members of this coalition include the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCC), and the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary.

Straight from the Bronx

The coalition emerged from a hard-fought battle against the Bloomberg administration’s plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory, a hulking 575,000-square-foot structure in the northwest Bronx, into a poverty-wage shopping mall. The project’s lead developer, the Related Companies, was slated to receive more than $60 million in taxpayer subsidies for the $310 million project.

In December 2009, the City Council voted 45-to-1 to reject the planned redevelopment of the Armory after Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to allow Related to negotiate with community and labor leaders over the terms of a Community Benefits Agreement, which included living wage jobs, local hiring, community and recreation space, money for affordable housing, the exclusion of a big box grocery store, and the protection of the right of retail workers to join a union without fear or intimidation.

This in turn catalyzed a citywide movement for living wage jobs at city-subsidized developments. With momentum from the struggle in the Bronx, Council Members Oliver Koppell (D-WFP-Kingsbridge) and Annabel Palma (D-WFP-Parkchester) introduced the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act in May and a majority of City Council members now supports the proposed ordinance. The measure would require all projects that receive more than $100,000 in city support to provide jobs that pay at least $10 per hour plus healthcare benefits or $11.50 per hour without benefits.

“With our tax dollars, this city is funding these mega-developments that come in are attacking our communities, they’re displacing us and they’re keeping us poor,” said Maisha Morales of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a Living Wage NYC coalition member. “It’s only fair that these developers pay living wages.”

Bloomberg

Since 1999, the city has provided upwards of $1 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to shopping centers, sports stadiums and office buildings (see sidebar, p.4) that are not required to provide living wages to the service workers who labor in them. And Mayor Bloomberg appears to like it that way. In fact, the Mayor, whose fortune climbed to $18 billion last year, argues that the establishment of a living wage is tantamount to communism.

“I’ve always wanted to let the marketplace set the wages,” he told the New York Daily News in September. “Government should not be in the business of doing that. The last government that tried that doesn't exist anymore. That was the Soviet Union.”

The Bloomberg administration has responded to the living wage campaign by allocating $1 million for a study of the proposed ordinance headed by a pair of economists, David Neumark and Daniel Hamermesh, who are among the nation's most vociferous critics of living wage laws. The Bloomberg administration continues to ignore a significant body of evidence including studies by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Center for American Progress (CAP) showing that cities have been able to successfully incorporate living wage standards into economic development projects without harming job growth. The CAP study covered cities as large as Los Angeles and as small as Duluth, Minnesota.

“Higher wages leads to more spending in the local economy, more tax dollars for the city, and fewer costs associated with providing public assistance,” said John Petro, an urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. “Creating low-wage jobs, on the other hand, does nothing to move families out of poverty and off of public assistance.”

Preaching Social Justice

Scores of local religious leaders are countering Bloomberg's Scrooge-like message this holiday season with a ringing defense of the proposed living wage legislation.

On the weekend of October 10, congregants at more than 80 houses of worship across the city heard pro-living wage messages during services and were asked to sign cards urging their Councilmembers to sign onto the bill. On Nov. 17, clergy led a silent procession to City Hall to deliver thousands of cards expressing support for the living wage ordinance.

“Wages are like education: when you don’t have enough of it, the community is destroyed,” said Rev. Dr. Robert M. Waterman of the Antioch Baptist Church of Brooklyn, and one of the faith leaders in the Living Wage NYC coalition. “Passing this living wage legislation is important to everybody and would raise the wage standards for all of our communities,” he added.

Twenty-eight out of 51 City Council members now support the bill and coalition members are working to gain a veto-proof majority of 34 supporters. They will also need to win over Council Speaker Christine Quinn who controls whether the proposed ordinance ultimately comes to a vote. Quinn has remained non-committal to date on the subject.

Living wage supporters will continue mobilizing in 2011 starting with a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event at Convent Baptist Church in Harlem on Jan. 13. The event will honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a leader in the struggle for living wages for sanitation workers in Memphis, 1968.

For workers like Larry who have worked in retail for years and can barely provide basic necessities for themselves and their kids, a living wage job would make all the difference in the world.

“If my co-workers and I had a good job with benefits, we would be able to pay our bills, pay rent and put food on the table for our families,” said Larry. “If everyone in New York could make at least $10 per hour, it would make a huge difference for all of us.”