Monday, December 21, 2009

The Wages of Sin

Lost in all of the lachrymose hand wringing by the exploited class of down in their luck real estate developers, is the hard to deny fact that-don't fall down now-there are workers in NY who are actually doing worse than Steve Ross of Related and Steve Roth of Vornado. Leave it to that good old sleuth Errol Louis to ferret out this difficult to discover fact.

As he writes in yesterday's NY Daily News: "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."

And while the NY Post is busy finding people who are so desperate in this city that they will work for even a minimum wage, the question remains: Why is it that they have to if the tax payers are ponying up million in public funds to aid the development? Let's face it, this is a zero sum game-either poverty jobs, or no jobs-that has been created by the real estate lobby and their reliable media brayers.

What Louis points out, is that this is a situation that can be changed-and should be: "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."

It's another example of how out of touch Mike Bloomberg really is: "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."

And Louis points to the fight now being waged at the Queens Center Mall, beneficiary of over $48 million in property tax breaks, as another example of Bloomberg's tax subsidies for dummies policy-with NY's tax payers wearing the dunce caps: "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...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."

Talk about lunacy! What sense does it make to subsidize employers just so the employees can continue to be forced to rely on public subsidies of their own because their jobs are so meager? "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.

Not gonna be happening if the city council understands what its 2010 mandate needs to be. And Louis deserves the last word: "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."