The Quinn Con: The Living Wage Deal Does Nothing
Of course it seemed like something to celebrate. After opposition from the City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn to a union-backed living wage bill, she finally agreed to a compromise. As usual, her support was couched in the kind of innocuous language of serving everyone’s interests, the kind of happy land talk that should set off alarm bells among skeptics but goes unchallenged by most city beat reporters.
One of the city’s most vocal living-wage advocates, Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement Jan. 13, “All in all, this is an unparalleled effort to raise standards for job creation, and we should all be proud of that. We know that there is much left to do to address income inequality, job creation and job quality in this city. But we have raised the bar on what government can do and we will continue to work with all our allies to address the very real concerns of working people and the unemployed.”
The original living wage fight has been about ensuring that retail jobs that are the product of city-subsidized developments pay at bottom $10 per hour ($11.50 if no benefits are provided), a modest sum in America’s most expensive city. The fight became highly contentious in 2010 when Appelbaum fought for living wage protections at the Kingsbridge Armory, as building trades unions, hungry for as much work as possible, didn’t want to see such politics getting in the way of new construction projects. It reinforced a line in the sand in the city labor movement, with cynical, white male-dominated building trades unionists on one side, and progressive unions dedicated to bettering a community dominated by women, immigrants and people of color on the other.
There’s a snag: The so-called compromise does just about nothing to help the people who are actually meant to be the beneficiaries. The New York Daily News reported, “The bill to require higher wages would cover only employees working for developers who get city tax breaks and not the retail tenants at their projects.” Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal said sources indicated that Quinn will “urge the city’s Economic Development Corporation to negotiate a living-wage standard for tenants when it brokers these types of deals.”
Building trades unions represent skilled workers who earn higher incomes than those in the service industry, and thus have never sought living wage protections. They are also completely aligned with the business lobby that says that imposing wage floors on businesses would hinder new development, therefore creating fewer construction jobs.
So retailers who would be benefiting indirectly from development subsidies would be under no obligation to pass that taxpayer-paid benefit onto the retail workers. That’s hardly a compromise. More importantly, if the provision isn’t that meaningful for building trades workers, who is benefiting?
The answer is that Quinn, who in her ambitions to become the next mayor has forced her over the course of three terms in the Councils to drift from the progressive constituency that brought her to prominence by aligning herself with Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a number of issues, including supporting the extension of term limits without a referendum and a general deference to the business lobby over labor.
But to win, especially as a Democrat, she still needs to the support of the city’s unions, who can turn out members in the run-up to the election. Quinn also expects to face accusations of drifting to the right from two candidates close to labor: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Quinn needs to give liberal Democratic voters impression that she isn’t totally closed to economic justice initiatives, and that she can bring different sides together to a sensible policy.
Appelbaum has taken the approach that even though retail workers are cut out from the compromise, this settlement is a starting point, and its better to have that in place before the election, and fighting to include low-wage service workers would be easier with her as a mayor with whom he has a working relationship.
It’s shaky logic. As the city’s top legislative leader, Quinn’s closeness to Bloomberg has earned her the nick name “Deputy Mayor Quinn.” If she were to become the actual mayor, why should one bet that she would then drift back to her progressive base rather than more firmly commit to the business interests she’s courted in order to market herself as a continuation of the Bloomberg administration?
Maybe Appelbaum knows something everyone else doesn’t. But just like how there’s the assumption that $10 per hour constitutes a living wage remains dubious, so is faith that Quinn will extend these protections if they are enacted and she gets the top job at the other end of City Hall.