Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ending Tax Subsidized Wage Slavery

Errol Louis has a provocative piece in today's NY Daily News on what he calls, "the, gloves off economy." It refers to the increasingly prevalent tactics of creating, "permatemps," workers without a real living wage or proper benefits. Here's what the gloives off term really means: "The term, used as the title of a new book and a pair of studies released this week, describes a bareknuckled attack on basic employment laws in one industry after another. It's when employees aren't given sick days or even bathroom breaks, or get paid less than the minimum wage. It's when low-wage workers are illegally classified as "managers" in order to deny them overtime."

And our buddies at Wal-Mart have been pioneers in this field: "The best estimates suggest the phenomenon is widespread, affecting millions of people. A 2006 study by the Center for a Changing Workforce estimated more than 3.3 million people are "permatemps," long-term employees improperly classified as contractors or temps. That's what happened with Wal-Mart, which in 2008 settled cases in 42 states by paying $352 million in stolen wages owed to hundreds of thousands of current and former employees forced to work, without pay, after the end of their shifts."

But, as Louis points out, so-called real jobs have also begun to take on the same hue as their gloves off cousins: "Millions more toil away in industries, including janitorial services, security firms, food service and garment businesses, that are based on providing lousy wages and standards."

Which brings us naturally to the RWDSU's battle over the Kingsbridge Armory. We refer to the union's efforts to insure that when projects are tax subsidized, the jobs that are created will be those with the kind of wages and benefits that can support a family. As union head Stuart Appelbaum has said: "I don't buy that assumption," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "It's not a matter of whether it's going to be profitable, but the size of the profit they will make." Living wage advocates point to the $40 million in city taxpayer money subsidizing the armory project in the form of tax breaks and city-funded repairs. "If they are taking from government," said Appelbaum, "they have to give back to the community."

Related, the developer of the mall project has been dragging its feet over this requirement-citing the fact that retailers will balk at locating in the development if they are required to raise their lower wage standards. We wonder. If the breathless cheer leading over Related's other mall project two miles south is any indication, the retailers should be knocking down the doors to get into this supposedly untapped market-and be willling to pay employees the living wage that the union's fighting for.

As the NY Times reported this week, retail business at the new mall is brisk-with one anti-union, poor wage package store crowing about how good things are: "Antonio Ramos, general manager of BJ’s Wholesale Club, which opened Aug. 1 and requires shoppers to become members, said his store was attaining “phenomenal membership numbers,” far exceeding expectations."

So Louis is right on target here-and the "Shops at the Armory" project should be his poster child. If Related can't live with the living wage requirement they should, in Bob Kappstatter's words, simply go home: ""It's time the city - led by the Bronx delegation in the City Council - draws a line in the sand and tells Related it needs to accept that make-or-break provision in a community benefits agreement now being hammered out by Borough President Ruben Diaz and community stakeholders. We can't see any great loss if the armory sits vacant until another developer - maybe one of the two that lost out in the original bid process - comes back to the table and accepts the terms. Oh, and, by the way, George Steinbrenner never did move his team to Jersey."

Related is making a killing from its Gateway sweetheart deal-one that makes the Armory's $5 million sale price look as if the city itself was short changed. Now it is using tens of millions of tax dollars to make the Armory development even more lucrative for the company. If so, they need to pony up for the workers. We'll give Errol Louis the last word: "We cannot build a healthy economy if millions are working for wages that leave them in perpetual poverty, unable to afford a car, a home or a decent education for their children."