The Village Voice
Candice M. Giove
Most of the 3,100 retail workers in the sprawling urban mall earn $7.25 an hour.
Standing on a snowy corner of Queens Boulevard, Santa symbolically held gift-wrapped boxes marked "living wages." A menacing green Dr. Seuss character represented the mall owner. Activists from Make the Road New York, a citywide organization focusing on economic justice, demanded that the landlord place a living wage clause in its leases -- which would require stores to pay $10/hour with benefits, or $11.50 without.
Yesteday the group released its Dickensian report, "Queens Center Mall a Poverty Wage Center in Elmhurst," illustrating the travails of low-income New Yorkers and arguing that the millions of dollars in tax abatements received by Macerich should translate into benefits for its employees, including a living wage and the right to unionize. They also beseeched the owner to create community space.
These demands come on the heels of the city council's slaying of the Related Company's plans to convert the historic Kingsbridge Armory in The Bronx into a major shopping attraction. Local lawmakers shot the plans down last week in the absence of a living wage agreement, a concession that its developer said would render the project financially unfeasible. (Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed the 47-1 vote against the development, though the council is expected to override it.)
"This is the second front of the battle for living wage jobs and community benefits," said Jeff Eichler, a coordinator with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which helped staunch the Bronx development that would have created over 1,200 retail jobs and joined in the new Queens fight.
But in contrast to the situation at the long-dormant Kingsbridge Armory, no land use review procedure process could be used to leverage community benefits at Queens Center. The mall, which lures over 26 million consumers a year and is considered one of the most profitable malls in the country, has already completed a $275 million makeover, adding thousands of square feet of shopping space and parking to the already busy site.
Like many major commercial property owners in New York, Macerich saved $48 million in taxes through the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program between 2004 and 2009. Make the Road New York predicted that by 2018 those abatements will total $129 million.
Andrew Friedman, the group's co-executive director, said the city shouldn't dole out abatements without requiring a living wage as some municipalities across the nation do.
"In the absence of good public policy requiring this, the mall owner should impose these requirements," he said.
The Make the Road New York report also contends that the property owner receives further benefits, since it sits at a transportation crossroads, with ten bus routes and two trains stopping near its doorstep.
Activists insisted that, with all these publically funded perks, the workforce deserved a raise. A survey they conducted among mall tenants found that most of the employment opportunities there were part-time, and paid wages hovering slightly over the minimum wage at $7.72 an hour.
Assemblyman Jose Peralta, who joined the group outside of the mall, said that local workers earning so little had to supplement their incomes with a second job, or with the aid of public assistance. He discounted the argument that any job is a good job in this grueling economy.
"It's not really okay because you could have a symbolic job that pays you minimum wage, but how do you survive in New York City?" he asked. "How could you maintain not only yourself but your family when you can't pay your bills?"
Even after years on the job, most mall employees barely climb the earnings ladder, the report said. Their examples include Juan Cucalon, a 28-year-old, $8.25-an-hour cashier at Victoria's Secret who struggles to pay a $400 rent with monthly earnings of $600, and Saa'datu Sani, whose earnings rose to $8.47 an hour at J.C. Penney after eight years.
The group and the officials plan to continue their campaign against Macerich with street demonstrations and letters. "Just like the story of Scrooge, where the ghost visited him on many occasions," said Councilman-elect Daniel Dromm, "we're going to come back, and we're going to visit this mall on many occasions until we get what the community needs."
Dromm, whose predecessor, outgoing City Councilwoman Helen Sears, was the lone supportive vote for the Kingsbridge Armory plan, said that he would pay special attention to ensuring that developers kept their promises.
Activists were also angry over what they portrayed as unrealized guarantees for a community space at the mall. "They're unwilling at this point to open that space up to desperately needed community programs like English as a second language or an afterschool program," Friedman said.
Their report claims that local teens become mall rats, vacuously hanging out in the food court, while a tourism office stands as the only community-oriented space in the mall.