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Four Years Hard Labor
The New York Observer
Eliot Brown

November 17, 2009
View the Original Article

A repetitive refrain filled City Hall’s council chambers on Tuesday morning. For a good hour at a zoning committee hearing on the contentious plan to redevelop the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory into a mall, council member after council member battered the Bloomberg administration and the developer, the Related Companies, with a similar line of questioning: Given that city subsidies are to be used in the $323 million project, why isn’t there a guarantee that all the future mall’s jobs will pay a “living wage?”

“You’re basically saying that the city is going to subsidize a project that basically is going to have jobs that are not even committed to paying the minimum poverty level,” said Councilman Robert Jackson, one of at least seven consecutive members to bring up the wage issue.

This all came as very welcome, if not unexpected, news to Stuart Appelbaum, the politically connected president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, who has been relentlessly pushing the Council on the living-wage issue.

“I was pleased with every single one of the members of the committee who were there today,” he said. “The city is putting so many resources into the armory that I think we have the right to ask for something specific in return.”

Recession be damned. New construction may be scarce in New York, but now many a union is viewing the present as a prime time to win new labor concessions at economic development projects overseen by the city, raising wages and opening the door for easier union organizing.

A collection of unions has been ratcheting up pressure in the past few years on a resistant Bloomberg administration over development issues, extracting concessions on individual large-scale projects such as Willets Point in Queens. Given the help, both organizational and financial, that they provided this past election season, labor leaders hope the political scene is ripe for spreading the policies they’ve been pushing. After all, unions and the labor-heavy Working Families Party won numerous victories in Council races this past fall, and the two citywide office winners other than the mayor, John Liu as public advocate and Bill de Blasio as city comptroller, were both backed by many unions.

THIS GOES WELL beyond the Kingsbridge Armory.

On Monday, a bill was introduced in the Council, pushed by the building service workers union SEIU 32BJ, that would require nearly every economic development project receiving city subsidies to guarantee prevailing wages—typically well above minimum wage—for the service employees. The hotel workers’ union, which backed Mayor Bloomberg, as well as Messrs. Liu and de Blasio and the majority of new council members, has been pushing to require Council approval on new hotel development, an area the union presumably wants to continue and expand.

For the labor initiatives, the rhetoric is similarly caustic, ridiculing policies that give subsidies without wage guarantees. “Tax dollars shouldn’t create poverty jobs,” said Mike Fishman, president of 32BJ.

“Incumbents and new members of the Council are all people we’ve had relationships with, and most of them people we’ve worked with and helped,” he said of the bill, introduced by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito. “I don’t know what the percentage will be, but I think we’ll be able to get to a majority and pass it.”

The situation at Kingsbridge is illustrative of the broader issues: Had the planned giant mall gone before the Council a few years ago, the retail workers’ union likely would not have put such considerable pressure on the council, content instead to take whatever union jobs might be created on their own as opposed to trying to kill the whole project.

(Indeed they haven’t: Numerous mall projects have been approved by the Council in recent years without living-wage guarantees, including one by the same developer in the same borough: Related’s Bronx Terminal Market.)

“We’re taking a new approach to dealing with economic development, as it relates to retail workers,” Mr. Appelbaum said.

Indeed. Mr. Appelbaum and his retail union, as well as others, are trying to get the Council to kill the Kingsbridge mall over the living wage, about $10 an hour for this project. Related says it will walk away from the project if living wage is required.

IN A SENSE, it’s surprising New York doesn’t have many of these wage restrictions already. Despite a comparatively robust labor movement locally, unions in numerous other cities—Oakland, Minneapolis, San Antonio—have been more successful in forcing laws requiring higher wages for employers that receive city subsidies.

Perhaps it’s due to New York having two successive Republican mayors, or perhaps it’s a testament to the power of the city’s real estate industry, which would surely resist such measures.

Either way, for labor, their goals remain little more than aspirations, and having a few more labor-friendly elected officials in City Hall hardly guarantees success on issues generally resisted by the Bloomberg administration and the business community.

City officials have, with varying degrees of success, pushed back against labor on wage requirements in development projects, saying such restrictions will scare away investment.

Mayor Bloomberg addressed the issue Tuesday morning, coming down against the unions in the context of Kingsbridge, saying the city “shouldn’t be” guaranteeing wages in private building.

And then there’s the issue of the economy, the fall of which has flattened development citywide. Any added burdens would change the economics of developments, meaning either that developers would need to take on more risk or seek more subsidy. Thus the real estate industry can surely be counted on to oppose any broader union push.

Particularly with regard to Kingsbridge, the living-wage issue seems to be a frustrating one for the administration, which wants to see it disappear. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Bob Lieber, deputy mayor for economic development, became agitated after repeated questions from reporters about living wages, which followed an hour of questions from the Council. “Mandatory wage requirements,” he said bluntly, “Scare. Tenants. Away.”