Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, on the Living Wage Bill


When Speaker Christine Quinn presented her compromised version of the Living Wage Bill last week, we immediately wondered how it would affect retail-clothing workers, #47 on the Voice’s list of the 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers.

We got in touch with Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Via an email Q&A, we asked Appelbaum all of the questions we had about the proposed bill, from how many people it would affect, to if (after Quinn’s compromise) it would actually help employees of tenants of city subsidized projects.

Speaker Christine Quinn seems confident that she has the votes for passing the Living Wage Bill. Do you think she also has enough votes to get the Council to override a potential (and, seemingly, predictable) veto by Mayor Bloomberg? Or are you thinking this may have to wait until the next mayor is in office?

Yes, absolutely. Speaker Quinn has shown real leadership on the living wage issue and there is very strong support in the City Council for the living wage agreement we recently announced with her. So I have no doubt that Speaker Quinn will have enough votes to override a mayoral veto.

What types of workers will see a wage increase if this bill passes?

Many different types of workers: employees of large businesses that receive from the city $1 million or more in subsidies and report more than $5 million in annual revenue. For example, warehouse and distribution center workers, on-site cafeteria and mailroom workers, along with workers at arenas, stadiums and other projects that receive subsidies. The initial living wage rate is $10 per hour plus $1.50 per hour in benefits. Both rates will be adjusted each year to keep pace with the rising cost of living in the city.

Are you concerned that tenants of projects the city does business with wouldn’t be held to the Living Wage Bill? How would that work when say, hypothetically, a project was built by a developer, but a contractor came in to do janitorial services. Those janitors would not be eligible for the living wage, would they? What about retail workers — those you represent — who might be working in, say, a GAP or a Radio Shack, that are inside a mall developed by a different company?

It’s important to note that we didn’t just get a bill. We secured a landmark three-part agreement — a bill, a policy framework, and a pilot program — that goes further than what any other city in the country has done on living wage for subsidized economic development. The living wage bill will extend to direct subsidy recipients and some tenant businesses when they benefit directly from city subsidies. And to promote living wage jobs more broadly across all city development projects, and cover retail tenants, the city will establish a new retail living wage initiative that includes:

— a city policy that employees on future subsidized development projects, including retail employees, should be paid a living wage;

— a new pilot program, created with $10 million in capital funds, to incentivize living wage retail jobs and show that a living wage requirement is viable.

All in all, this is a very significant and progressive living wage agreement that will help raise job standards in the retail industry and fundamentally change the way the city approaches economic development and job creation when subsidies are involved. This agreement will prevent the hypothetical situation you mentioned from arising in the subsidized development projects we cover.

Would waiters and those who rely on tips also be affected by this bill?

Yes, and again, the living wage agreement has three parts–it’s not just a bill. Under the policy component of the larger agreement, city government will aim to ensure that waiters and those who rely on tips are covered when they are employed by tenant businesses like restaurants. For tipped employees whose jobs are in businesses affected by the agreement, tips would have to make up the difference in their base pay and the living wage rate established by agreement instead of the difference between their base pay and the minimum wage rate of $7.25/hr. Existing law for tipped employees establishes base hourly pay below the minimum wage and permits tips to make up the difference between the base pay and the minimum wage.

Also, could businesses that received economic development money from the city get around the Living Wage Bill by simply setting up another company to run those businesses, who would then be their “tenant”?

No. The three-part agreement will prevent this kind of foul play and trickery. Transparency and disclosure measures are built-in so that the city will know what developers and companies are really doing in these projects. Businesses won’t be able to set up separate operations or alternate identities that game the system. Businesses covered by the agreement will not be able to get away with deceptive practices. Reporting requirements and other mechanisms will keep track of compliance.

According to the Crain’s article, with the Living Wage Bill, “Ms. Quinn said the measure would include about 80% of the 700 or so workers per year the original bill would have covered.” Is that accurate? What would be the ripple affect be on other workers through the city that were not affected by the bill? Through out the country?

The living wage campaign never released any estimates of the number of jobs likely to be impacted. Our campaign always had broad goals of shaping the future of economic development and raising standards for job creation, and the agreement we reached with the City Council achieves those goals. So we’re not focused on any estimates that are driven by past projects and have no real bearing on future projects. Any estimates are inexact at best. Look, our campaign changed the conversation about job creation and income inequality in this city, so we think we will have an impact on the new effort to raise the minimum wage at the state level, and we know the living wage standard created by our agreement with the City Council will give us leverage and power in future negotiations with retail companies. Because this is the most significant and progressive living wage agreement of its kind, we do believe it will have national implications and enable many other cities to use public policy and legislation to incorporate wage standards into economic development and job creation programs.

When you and I first met in person, we chatted (and I referred to in the Voice list of the “100 Most Powerless New Yorkers”) about how retail workers in Sweden are given their work schedules a year in advance by law, and retail workers in New York are lucky to get a week notice. Can you tell me more about how the retail workers you represent face challenges other than living off of $7.25 an hour? Do you have any legislative solutions you are pushing to achieve those goals?

A key challenge is documented in the new report, Discounted Jobs , released this week by the RWDSU, and our new endeavor, the Retail Action Project : more retail workers are losing control over their schedules and not being given the hours they want and deserve. This is where you really see the value and importance of union contracts in retail. The contracts we’ve won for our members at Macy’s and other large retailers here in NYC include many of the scheduling protections that non-unionized retail workers lack today. Also unionized retail workers earn much more on average than their nonunionized counterparts. So we’re very focused on continuing to organize retail workers in the city and bring as many of them as we can into the RWDSU. Policy and legislative victories are hugely important but union contracts are still some of the most effective tools for improving the lives of working people.

Can you describe, based on your years of experience, how a worker gets by in New York City on $7.25 an hour?

$7.25 per hour is an unacceptably low wage for anyone to be earning today. It is a poverty-wage and makes basic survival nearly impossible. That’s why the RWDSU strongly supports the growing campaign to raise the minimum wage in New York. Our recent victory on living wage is a clear reminder that people need to be able to earn enough to live, not barely survive. And we know that the broad and diverse living wage movement we built here in New York City will go on to play a major role in the campaign to raise the minimum wage and help frame the core argument in terms of the wage that is necessary for New Yorkers to live in dignity and achieve a modicum of economic justice.

Also, do you have any response to this claim about the living wage bill which I just got in my inbox from former Democratic Assemblyman Ed Sullivan? It reads:

“Speaker Quinn had been undecided about supporting the Living Wage Bill. When she presented her compromise version of the Bill on last Friday, she estimated that the number of workers that would actually receive a raise as a result of this legislation would be 400 to 500. So according to the Speaker, a little more than 1% of the 40,000 workers currently receiving Minimum Wage in New York would be affected by her compromise bill, leaving almost 99% unaffected.”

Again, as I said earlier, the living wage campaign never released any estimates of the possible number of jobs to be affected. We think estimates are misleading and don’t capture the full scope of how this living wage victory will improve people’s lives. We’re completely transforming the way the city will use subsidies in future economic development and job creation. Subsidies will now be used more responsibly and effectively to create living wage jobs and negotiate projects and deals where living wage jobs are the rule, not the exception. And the fact that the concept of living wage has become such a big part of the political conversation means that what we’ve achieved in this agreement will surely influence the new campaign to increase the minimum wage in New York. So, for these reasons and more, we expect to have a very wide-ranging impact on jobs and wages for many years to come.