THE KINGSBRIDGE SHUFFLE

living wage campaigns and the collapse
of the Kingsbridge Armory Mall project

The Kingsbridge section of New York City’s Borough of the Bronx is dominated by the Kingsbridge Armory, a National Guard Armory built by the State of New York during World War I to house the 8th Coastal Artillery Regiment.

The Armory was used as a military facility for many years, and was also adapted by the NYC Human Resources Administration as a homeless women’s shelter during the great wave of homelessness that hit New York City’s working class in the 1980’s.

HRA and the National Guard both shifted their operations out of the huge and very beautiful castle-like building in 1994 and it has stood abandoned ever since, except for a short time in 2006, when Warner Brothers rented the building to film the Will Smith action adventure movie “I Am Legend”.

Warner Bros got the building for cheap – only $ 350,000 for 7 months.

In recent years, the Related Companies, a Manhattan-based real estate development firm, decided that they wanted to renovate the Armory and turn it into a suburban-style shopping mall.

This would be a profitable venture for Related – there are a lot of working class Bronxites who have enough purchasing power to buy high quality consumer goods, but they have to go to Westchester or New Jersey to do so, because many Bronx merchants charge high prices for low quality products.

Profitable, but not quite profitable enough – so Related asked for $ 50 million in city and state subsidies and the City and State agreed in principle, pending approval by the New York City Council.

That seemed easy enough – the city’s powerful billionaire mayor, Mike Bloomberg, was behind the development.

It was also supported by the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council, who, as a rule, will unconditionally support any real estate development if the developer promises to build with all union labor, which Related had agreed to.

That wasn’t a hard promise for Related to make, because they builds all of their developments with union labor - the last big mall they built in the city, the Time Warner Center, was done all union, as was the mixed use complex that mall was built in (or MOSTLY union, in that case - some of the residential work went scab).

In this case, Related went even further than they did with Time Warner Center.

Since the neighborhood around the Armory, and the rest of the Bronx as a whole, is overwhelmingly Latino and Black, Related agreed to use a Latino owned General Contractor, Tri-Line Contracting, and to sub out much of the work to Black, Latino or women owned subcontractors, which would guarantee that many of the 2,000+ union tradespeople who would work on the site over the life of the project would be Black, Latino or female.

Related also got the support of local 32bj of the Service Employees International Union [SEIU], by promising to use unionized janitors and security guards at the Armory.

But getting the City Council’s approval wasn’t that simple – and it was that hurdle that did the job in, and prevented it from happening.

In part, the lopsided 45 to 1 vote against the Kingsbridge Armory mall deal was an act of revolt by a majority Democratic City Council against a deeply unpopular billionaire Republican mayor who is widely hated in the city and was only narrowly reelected (and he had to spend $ 102 million of his own money to buy that victory).

But there are other factors, related to the politics of Kingsbridge and the Bronx and to the social base of the Democratic Party political machine in New York City.

Local merchants objected to the new mall – basically because it would be offering high quality low priced merchandise to their customer base, as opposed to the low quality high priced merchandise that is customarily sold by inner city retailers.

These merchants sell cheap overpriced goods not out of any kind of malice towards their customers, but simply because of the institutionalized economic discrimination that banks and wholesalers commit against small inner city merchants in largely Black and Latino communities.

Basically, they are only extended credit at high interest rates, and they are charged high prices for inferior goods at the wholesale level, which forces them to pass on the price gouging to their retail customers and makes it hard for them to compete with corporate-owned retail chains.

One of the local merchants who objected to the mall was a small inner city supermarket chain that happens to have a union contract with the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union [RWDSU].

Like almost all union contracts in the retail industry, it was a low wage sweatshop contract, with most of the workers covered by the pact paid very low wages only a few pennies above the legal minimum wage.

Technically, those workers do have health coverage and pension benefits, but, due to the high labor turnover in the industry (which I’ll explain in more detail below) few of these workers ever actually get to collect on these benefits.

That retailer approached local 338, RWDSU, the local that represented his workers, which in turn approached the union’s top leaders, who immediately jumped on the bandwagon in campaigning against the Armory mall.

The RWDSU and the merchants were joined by local churches and anti poverty agencies, who had strong ties of their own with the merchants and who also wanted to use the mall as office and classroom space for their social programs.

Initially, when Related’s application to get the Kingsbridge Armory was filed back in 2005, the RWDSU and it's coalition partners allied with the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council and local 32bj, SEIU – but once those labor groups got their own deal for their workers the alliance fizzled, and the two groups went their own way.

Along the way, the RWDSU/merchant/clergy/anti poverty agency alliance did win support from many Bronx politicians, because the social base of the Democratic Party machine in the Bronx is local merchants, social service agency professional staff and ministers – so if a plan was going to hurt those groups, the politicians would be opposed to it too.

Demagogically, RWDSU and its church, merchant, anti poverty agency official and Democratic Party politician allies claimed to be speaking for “the community” and hid their narrow sectional demands behind a red herring call for “living wage jobs”.

Related’s counterargument to the demand for a “living wage” of $ 10/hr for jobs with benefits and $ 11.50/hr with no benefits was that those wages are far above the prevailing wage for that industry.

Sadly, Related is speaking the truth here – retail is a low wage job, with most retail workers in New York City earning minimum wage and many – particularly the employees of inner city small merchants – actually getting less than minimum.

The RWDSU has a whole lot to do with WHY this state of affairs prevails.

RWDSU signs low wage contracts in the retail industry and the vast majority of their members do not earn a living wage.

The same can be said for the United Food and Commercial Workers, the RWDSU’s parent union (the RWDSU, once an independent union, became a UFCW affiliate in 1993) and the other big retail industry union.

If the RWDSU and the UFCW genuinely cared about living wage jobs, they would bargain living wage contracts with their signatory employers.

Instead, they torpedoed the Kingsbridge Armory mall project, sacrificing the needs of the working class - both construction workers citywide and the local residents of Kingsbridge – to benefit the narrow interests of the local merchants and their allies in the clergy, the anti poverty agencies and the Bronx County Democratic Party.

The RWDSU has a similar campaign, targeting the Queens Center Mall, a large shopping mall in the Elmhurst section of the Borough of Queens that has the highest sales per square foot of any mall in America ($ 876 per square foot) and has gotten $ 48 million in tax abatements and other government subsidies.

The RWDSU and a Bushwick, Brooklyn-based not for profit labor and immigration law not for profit social service agency called Make The Road New York and the local Democratic Party machine are the backers of this campaign.

The RWDSU and it’s allies point out, correctly, that most of the 3,100 employees at the mall are low wage part time workers – most getting paid close to the minimum and at least one store in the mall actually pays it’s workers less than minimum wage.

But there are similar reasons to question the motives of the RWDSU and it’s anti poverty agency and Democratic Party allies.

Firstly, if the RWDSU was really worried about low retail wages, they could have resolved those issues at the bargaining table with Macy’s, who has been an RWDSU employer since 1937 and has been one of the flagship tenants of the mall since it opened in 1973.

The UFCW used to have a presence there too, back when May’s – another flagship tenant and a signatory employer of UFCW local 888 – was still in business.

As for the other stores at Queens Center - the RWDSU has had 36 years to unionize that building, why are they only talking about it now?

As for Make The Road - I read the report they co authored with RWDSU “Queens Center Mall a poverty wage center in Elmhurst”, available on the RWDSU’s website, at:  http://www.rwdsu.info/files/proof.pdf

It seemed that Make The Road and the local not for profits were angling for free office and classroom space from the mall operators and that may be what is really driving this campaign, not concern for low wage retail workers.

Essentially, it looks to be a Jesse Jackson-style shakedown - take a genuine injustice and use it as a cover for a demand for contributions from an abusive employer, in return for making the protests go away.

Basically, it’s a legalized protection racket, if the employer antes up and makes a “donation” to the groups doing the protests, the campaign is called off, even if the injustices continue.

Technically, it’s legal, but it’s far from ethical.

I was also taken aback by some of the starkly anti working class and anti youth positions taken by Make The Road and RWDSU’s report.

They seemed to have a problem with working class youth from Elmhurst wanting to get jobs there and hanging out in the mall in their free time.

Instead of praising Queens Center for providing jobs for 2,000+ local high school and college students and for the fact that - unlike a lot of places in NYC - working class youth of color are free to hang out in the Queens Center mall without fear of police harassment, the report slammed Queens Center mall for “distracting” those students from their studies by giving them jobs and a place to hang out!

That was an appallingly reactionary position to hear from folks who claim to advocate for the poor!

Bottom line, over the past 50 years, retail has ceased to be a career job and has become a “transitional job” for teenagers and young adults.

Retail employers have a tiny core workforce of full time store managers and delivery drivers who are career retail workers.

The rest of the industry is teenagers for whom retail is a stepping stone to their “real jobs” that they will get when they finish college.

That’s why retailers can pay wages that are so low - since these workers don’t see themselves as workers (but as students who have a day job) and they perceive these jobs as a temporary hardship that will end when they graduate from college, they will put up with low pay, infrequent hours and bad working conditions.

To some degree, working in a low wage retail job is seen as a “rite of passage” on the way to a successful adult career in another industry, rather than a job injustice that can and should be fought against.

There are adult workers in retail stores – in particular, recent immigrants – but the existence of a large pool of transitional youth workers pulls down the wage scale for all but the most privileged of retail workers, so most adult retail workers also get low wages and inadequate work hours as well.

The RWDSU, the UFCW and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters were fully aware that this transition was happening in the retail industry because they SIGNED OFF ON IT EVERY STEP OF THE WAY and never made any effort to stop it while it was happening over the last 50 years.

The low wage retail industry was created by 50 years of union concessions and contracts that allowed employers to hire an unlimited number of part timers.

It weakened the RWDSU, UFCW and IBT to the point that these days, most retailers don’t even bother to have a low wage union contract.

That loss of a steady stream of dues payers may be what’s driving the RWDSU’s newfound pseudomilitancy, not any sincere concern about the welfare of low wage retail workers.

Significantly, their has only been one serious campaign to organize low wage retail workers on a citywide scale in this city in the past 62 years, and it was NOT carried out by the RWDSU.

Back in 1997, local 169, Union of Needletrade, Industrial and Textile Employees [UNITE] launched an organizing drive to sign up the 14,000 Mexican immigrants employed in Korean immigrant-owned delis in Manhattan, with the assistance of the Lower East Side Community Labor Coalition.

These workers are adult men, not teenagers, and retail work is their full time job, not a stepping stone to another career – but, due to the low wage scale that retail bosses can get away with paying because of a large pool of transitional youth and student workers, and due to the immigration status of these workers, the bosses could get away with paying less than minimum wage and imposing 14 hour work days, 7 day workweeks and lots of other job abuses.

Despite harassment from thugs in the pay of Korean deli owners, raiding by a gangster-run local of the International Longshoremen’s Association brought in by the deli owners and indifference from most of the rest of the labor movement, local 169 carried out successful strikes at 2 delis on the Lower East Side, and was able to get other deli owners to agree to a code of conduct that included actually paying the legal minimum wage.

The RWDSU didn’t lift a finger to aid this organizing campaign, and UFCW local 1500 actually raided UNITE local 169 represented commercial laundries and forced the local to turn over it’s entire organizing drive in the deli industry to local 1500 – who promptly abandoned the campaign.

UNITE local 169 later carried out successful organizing campaigns at Labyrinth Books and at the Duane Reade drug store chain – an RWDSU signatory employer where local 338 only organized the store managers and left the workers non union!

There was a lot of company unionism at Duane Reade – with select bargaining units of privileged workers cherry picked by various unions (RWDSU local 338 had the managers, Teamsters local 807 had the full time truck drivers and warehousemen and SEIU local 1199 had the pharmacists) but the cashiers and stock clerks – the vast majority of the workers in the stores - were non union when UNITE came on the scene!

So, considering that track record, RWDSU’s motives for it’s so called “living wage campaign” seem highly suspect.

- commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 608 CARPENTER
FOR GANGBOX: CONSTRUCTION WORKERS NEWS SERVICE
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“UNION NOW, UNION FOREVER”
Originally published on Wednesday, December 23, 2009