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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jan 6, 2010, 7:13 am

The Mall as Poverty Wage Center

BY Richard Greenwald

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RWDSU Organizer Jeff Eichler (at center).   (Photo courtesy

Can retail workers organize? Can they get a living wage? These may be philosophical questions, but to the thousands of retail workers who rely on their wages to support themselves, they are at the center of a grim reality.

In New York City, we have a test case. The Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst (which Michelle Chen wrote about on this blog last month) has been an economic success. It boasts the highest revenue per square foot for any mall in the U.S.; its parent company, Macerich, has received $48 million in tax abatements in the past five years, and $50 million more are coming.

Yet the 3,100 workers who work there aren't seeing too much money. The workers' hourly wage averages $7.50, well below the estimated $11.50 living wage that the New York City Council tried to require for a new Bronx shopping project.

Recently, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Make the Road New York have teamed up with consumer groups and local politicians to hold retailers accountable.

In December, RWDSU and Make the Road/NY issued a report, “Queens Center Mall: A Poverty Wage Center in Elmhurst.” Not only does the mall fail to pay living wages, but because of the lack of public space in Central Queens, and the nearby crowded neighborhoods, the mall has become de facto public space, attracting hundreds of area teens per day.

The coalition is making a stand at the mall, demanding three basic rights: a living wage of $11.50 per hour, services and accessible space for the surrounding community, and the mall’s management must respect workers’ rights to organize.

Located in one of the most ethnically diverse and densely populated places in the country, the drama now playing out at the Queens Center Mall might point to a new organizing effort at the grassroots. Unions, working with key community organizations and allied with progressive local politicians, are finally fighting big targets.

As progressives, we need to get the word out. For more information, read the RWDSU report.

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Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county's leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.

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