In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a limited living wage ordinance that covers employees of service contractors doing business with the city—principally health care workers, as well as a handful of day care, food service and disability service workers. At the time of its passage, the living wage was $8.10 per hour, and has since risen to $10 per hour.
The 2002 ordinance did not apply to low-wage workers in the private sector, particularly in restaurants, hotels, and retail stores—even if these private sector employees worked in publicly-subsidized developments. To this day, taxpayer money is funding poverty-wage retail jobs.
Fighting for Living Wages at the Armory
Former KARA organizer Ava Farkas discusses the bittersweet victory of the struggle at the Kingsbridge Armory, and how the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act would improve the lives of working people in New York.
In 2005, and the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA)—a grassroots alliance of Bronx residents, churches and labor unions—was formed before the Bloomberg administration launched its redevelopment plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory, a 575,000-square-foot fortress-like structure in the northwest Bronx, into a 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. Related claimed it could not ask future tenants to pay the 1,200 or so retail workers in the proposed “Shops at the Armory” more than the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. After negotiations between Bronx City Council delegation members, the Related Companies, and the Bloomberg administration, the mayor scuttled negotiations at the last minute, giving the council no choice but to kill the project.
Looking to the Future
The battle over the armory could catalyze a new living wage movement. Retail workers at the Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst have already begun demanding that the mall’s parent company, Macerich, require tenants to pay a living wage, allow retail workers to join a union without intimidation from their employer and provide space for community functions. Most of the 3,100 retail workers in the mall are paid around the minimum wage, despite the $48 million in tax abatements Macerich has received since 2004, with an additional $50 million in the coming years.
As the movement for workers’ rights and community benefits moves forward, more and moreworkers are joining with community and labor activists to say “no” to economic injustice in New York City.
To read more about the living wage movement in New York, read Gotham Gazette piece, "The Living Wage After Kingsbridge" and the In The Times piece, "Urban Communities Seek Lift Through Living Wage."