NY Daily News
The event is perfectly timed, coming hot on the heels of the City Council's recent vote, 45 to 1, to kill a plan backed by Mayor Bloomberg that would have poured tens of millions in subsidies into a new mall at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.
Figuring out how to create and retain decent-paying jobs is the single most pressing economic issue facing New York City, and a fight that can't be put off any longer.
On one side are developers, retailers and the Bloomberg administration, content to continue traditional schemes that throw millions of public dollars at commercial projects in exchange for jobs - often, with little or no concern about the quality or wage levels of the employment.
On the other side are families trying desperately to make miserably small paychecks cover food, shelter, transportation, clothing, education and other necessities.
In too many cases, it just can't be done.
Most of the 3,100 jobs at the mall pay at or only slightly more than the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, according to a report being released today by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Make the Road New York, a community organization.
The groups call Queens Center Mall a poverty wage center - a place where people work endless hours for years, but never earn enough to support a family.
Juan Cucalon, a 28-year-old cashier at Victoria's Secret in Queens Center Mall, told researchers he got $8.25 an hour - $600 a month, after taxes. After paying $400 a month for his rented room, Cucalon had $200 a month for food and other necessities.
Another ex-worker, Saa'datu Sani, worked at JCPenney from 1999 to 2007. Her pay after eight years was $8.47 an hour, with no benefits.
"The mall has helped create an entire community that is struggling under the weight of poverty-wage jobs," the report concludes.
The pay is so low, in fact, that many retail workers make ends meet by turning to public welfare like food stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Most galling of all is the fact that Macerich, the Queens Mall operator and a major national manager of malls, got more than $48 million in property tax breaks between 2004 and 2009, according to the report.
That is where the rest of us come in.
If an employer chooses to pay legally low wages, that's between them and their workers (who in many cases would be well-advised to form or join a union).
When public money is used to subsidize lousy wages, the city as a whole needs to rise up and say: not so fast.
That is what the Kingsbridge Armory fight was all about. A combination of local residents, labor unions and community groups all demanded that the Related Companies, the proposed developer seeking zoning changes and upward of $40 million in public subsidies - put language in its leases requiring retail tenants to pay at least $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without.
Related and the Bloomberg administration - backed by a howling chorus of scornful critics - acted as if people's demand for decent wages were an outbreak of insanity.
"It is the right project for the Bronx," announced the billionaire mayor, saying the Council voted down the plan for "parochial reasons."
The nonparochial big picture, presumably, is that people should simply thank the corporations and City Hall for the opportunity to work long hours, without benefits, for a few hundred dollars a month in perpetuity - and the rest of us should subsidize this from the public treasury.
In reality, the Bronx leaders had a tough choice to make, one that will likely never be understood by their critics. The long fight for workplace rights - the eight-hour day, overtime, safety protections, the right to organize unions, and more - is a history of hard fights and sacrifices.
In this case, the Bronx and Queens activists have drawn a principled line in the sand, announcing that developers, retailers and city government need to factor living wages into their financial models and subsidy requests if they want public largess.
My guess is that a majority of New Yorkers support the idea. The question is when City Hall will join the fight on the side of the people.