Monday, July 19, 2010

More Retail Politics: Living Wage Edition

This week's Crain's focuses in on the living wage work of RWDSU's president Stu Appelbaum (subsc.): "He doesn't boast the money, members or political might of some of New York's heaviest hitters in labor, but these days retail union President Stuart Appelbaum is creating a ruckus that belies his organization's size. In December, he engineered the defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment by demanding that all the retail jobs created by the project pay at least $10 an hour, plus benefits—the only time a City Council land-use vote has gone against Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Appelbaum wasted little time after that in pushing a citywide living-wage bill that ticked off administration officials, developers and even some unions, which contend that it would be a job killer. Last week, the bill got a boost when the powerful building workers union, 32BJ SEIU, threw its weight behind it."

What Appelbaum has done is to focus a laser like attention on the Bloomberg economic development policies-and the gap between the mayor's ballyhoo and the poverty wage reality:

 "Indeed, Mr. Appelbaum has succeeded in creating a public policy firestorm around living-wage mandates on publicly subsidized projects, upending an uneasy truce that had existed between developers, unions and activist groups in which they typically negotiated deals on a project-by-project basis. The mayor has repeatedly said that living-wage mandates for retail jobs would make projects economically unfeasible and stifle development. The ensuing commotion prompted the city to commission a $1 million study on the feasibility of tying a living wage to public projects. Mr. Appelbaum's stand against “institutionalizing poverty” in the city was born out of a sense of justice, he says, that developed early in his life. His father was a postal clerk and his mother a file clerk. Neither was politically active, but Mr. Appelbaum developed a political consciousness by reading his father's union newspaper and attending synagogue. In his east midtown office, he displays his father's American Postal Workers Union card and a poster featuring a line from Deuteronomy: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” He holds up the framed print and says, “It's the moral imperative for what I do.”

But the pursuit of justice doesn't sit well with some of Appelbaum's labor colleagues-the ones for whom justice is, "just-us." These are the folks for whom building, no matter the quality or the impact, is the be all and end all-as long as their own members are doing the building, they care not a fig about who might not be benefiting; be they underpaid retail workers, or small businesses cannibalized by national chains. Nothing throws this mentality into better sharp relief than the current debate over Flushing Commons.

As we have highlighted in a previous post, the retail component of the project has the potential to grind both traffic and mom and pop shops to a halt in Flushing-exacerbated by the fact that national retail chains are proliferating in and around the project area. Yet, there is no attempt by the developer or EDC to insure that, at least, the retail jobs will be better than those, "poverty wage jobs," that Appelbaum speaks about. If you are going to cause such dislocation-and we haven't even mentioned the untenable strain imposed on the mass transit infrastructure-than, it seems to us, that the city could be working to insure that the retail workers at the new mall will be adequately compensated. You'd think.

But the EDC would rather spend millions, "studying," the issue-and we just know what these choochems will find, since we have seen how righteous such studies have been. So, when the city does its benefit analysis of these mega-projects-and, oh yes, Flushing Commons is IDA eligible, and you can bet the tax subsidies aren't far behind-they never do the cost analysis. We have outlined such costs previously, but the additional cost with Flushing Commons will be poorly paid workers, and richly rewarded developers.