New York’s Community-Labor Divide


It’s just our luck that the first time the City Council actually musters the courage to face down Mike Bloomberg, it’s to kill a plan that—whatever its flaws—would have put hard-pressed New Yorkers back to work.

Not that it wasn’t a huge thrill watching it happen.

A riled-up and all but unanimous Council voted 45-1 last week against the mayor’s scheme to hand the cavernous old Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx—property of the City of New York—over to his favorite developer. The plan was to create a profitable mega-mall, kick-started with some $50 million in tax breaks and subsidies. The developer is the mighty Related Companies, the outfit that has defined the look of ostentatious wealth in the Bloomberg era. They have the soaring Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, with its glittering shops and condos. Right up the street here at Astor Place, they built the hideous “sculpture for living.” It is 21 floors of mirrored glass and contains all of 39 apartments.

It was a thrill, too, because Related’s top people are personal friends of the richest New Yorker: Steve Ross is one of those who whispered in Bloomberg’s ear last year, urging him to grab that third term. Ross was once a business partner of Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s old top deputy. Doctoroff is now back in the private sector running something called Bloomberg LP. When Related partner Jeff Blau recently needed references to help him land a lush pad in an exclusive Fifth Avenue co-op, the mayor wrote a nice letter and called people on the board on Blau’s behalf (he was still rejected). Among the rich, this is called networking. It could also be called a conflict of interest, but the city board charged with examining such things is too busy scrutinizing school teachers and sanitation workers to notice.

How well is this crew from Related doing? Just last week, they opened their own bank. They modestly called it SJB National, a clever combination of the initials of the first names of Related’s owners. Already, they have lined up a billion dollars in deposits. They are prospering even more on Manhattan’s far West Side, where Related is the city’s designated developer of a $15 billion project that will rise over the sprawling rail yards. This, too, is being accomplished with a massive package of city tax aid and investment.

These are the same people who reacted with outrage when local Bronx residents and unions demanded that retail jobs at the city-subsidized mall be more than part-time employment and pay above minimum wage. “That would make us uncompetitive!” screeched Related’s owners, their faces scrunched in horror.

The demand also horrified their friend the mayor. Even as his advisers told him that the Council would vote down the project without a wage deal, Bloomberg thundered against it, offended by the very notion. The Friday before the vote, the wealthiest New Yorker appeared on his regular radio show, hosted by his ever-agreeable pal, John Gambling. “It is not the city’s business—it is not government’s business—to tell companies that they should pay more,” he sputtered. He brought himself up short when he realized he had just denounced the basis of all government wage legislation since the Great Depression. “There are federal minimum-wage laws,” he quickly added, “and those are fine.”

Moments later, his inner Ayn Rand was back in full control: “The bottom line is the marketplace is the marketplace,” he proclaimed.

So true. In fact, the marketplace being what it is, the minute that a gleaming-new, tax-subsidized food store opens at the armory, the longtime merchants across the street are likely to start going out of business. These are firms employing hundreds of local residents, many at union wages, with benefits—merchants who held on through the worst of the “Bronx Is Burning” years.

Those were some of the issues that were persuasive to the Bronx’s young new borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., who became an outspoken champion of a “living wage” deal for the armory. Bronx Council members—bitterly divided over the past year—also became united on the issue. This, in turn, inspired Council speaker Christine Quinn, who is eager to shed her reputation as the mayor’s often-compliant partner.

The result, on December 14, was a City Council almost giddy at the prospect of finally defying the mayor. The same council that had largely rolled over for Bloomberg on some 200 previous zoning issues, the same council that cravenly conspired to let him overturn term limits last year, was aboil at the thrill of saying, at long last, “No.” You could see it in the smiling, whispered asides as members popped up from their chairs and raced across the aisle to consult with friends and allies. Big Bill de Blasio, who will take over as Public Advocate in a couple of weeks, loped across the room, bending over to murmur encouragement to his troops.

It was a moment of long-delayed political empowerment that was thrilling to watch. And then, just as quickly, the thrill was gone. Outside on the City Hall steps was a handful of dejected-looking representatives of the city’s construction building trades. These days, their recession-battered ranks have a 40 percent unemployment rate. The armory plan would have employed 1,000 of their members, jobs that went up in smoke the minute the Council vote was tallied.

In the early days of the coalition that organized to win better-paying jobs at the new armory, all of the big unions were happily onboard. Gary LaBarbera, the ex-Teamster who heads the city’s Building and Construction Trades Council, signed on to the goals of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. So did the building service workers of Local 32BJ, who are playing a steadily more influential role in city politics. But as the vote grew closer and Bloomberg refused to budge, the construction and building service unions peeled off from the coalition to cut their own deals with Related.

This is how such coalitions often bust apart. At the end of the day, unions are responsible to their own members to make sure they have jobs, and the construction trades have never met a project they didn’t like. The joke goes that they would build their own gallows if you let them do it union. As long as there is work to be had, there is nothing better: wages go to $50 an hour, along with deep benefits. On the other hand, for most of the residents in the north Bronx, such union cards are just a dream. Their career paths are more likely to deposit them in one of those part-time, minimum-wage jobs at one of those big stores that Related wanted to create than one pouring the cement used to build it.

This labor-community divide—with one group of workers played off against another—is one of the oldest and saddest chapters in the city. It is made even more bitter by overlays of race. Construction trades are far more integrated than they once were, but blacks and Latinos still don’t get their fair share of the work.

It was the dream of Stu Appelbaum, the tough head of the retail workers union who helped lead the fight to win better wages at the armory, that the Kingsbridge battle might become a bridge to start healing that divide. It might even have happened if this city had a union leader of enough stature and clout. What we have instead are a group of warlords vigorously patrolling their own turf. And a mayor only too happy to see them feud.

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