Great political legacies are decided less by a leader's public policies than their response to crises. As he begins his third and final term, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has the chance to address one of the greatest economic and job crisis in New York's history and, in doing so, decide his own place in City Hall history.
Faced with record unemployment and a collapsing middle-class, the mayor must focus his last term on the monumental task of rebuilding the city's sputtering economy. He must also begin to recognize that real prosperity doesn't trickle from the top down; rather it is methodically and carefully built from the grassroots up. The battle over the permanent retail and other jobs planned for the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Plan in the Bronx is his first challenge.
Over the course of this decade the fastest growing source of private sector jobs in New York has been in the retail industry, but it is also one of the worst paying. An alarming 44 percent of retail workers earn less than $10 an hour. The implications of this aren't only staggering for the low-wage worker, but for taxpayers who foot the bill for the social services they need for their families to survive.
To guarantee good paychecks at Kingsbridge, last year an alliance pioneered by a coalition of labor, community, and faith-based organizations, have been pressing the developer of Kingsbridge, the Related Companies, to sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). The agreement would insure that in return for public support and monies, Related Companies must sign a contract ensuring its tenants will pay the retail and building workers a living wage and maintain neutrality during union organizing drives. The CBA would serve as a legally enforceable contract, and would offer an equitable approach for the low-income community of Kingsbridge so they too can benefit from the economic stimulus of this neighborhood development.
So far, and not surprisingly, Related has refused to sign the CBA. Many of our elected leaders believe, as do most New Yorkers, that when a private corporation receives public support, the public has the right to expect something in return. Unfortunately, one New Yorker, the one at the top, has publicly taken the opposite position. Mayor Bloomberg revealed this opposition when he told the Daily News this week, "The city is not in the business of guaranteeing people's wages."
New York once had another three-term mayor who was faced the crisis of soaring unemployment and chronically low wages, but instead of standing back he recognized that government had a duty to intervene, and do something for those who were struggling. That mayor was Fiorella La Guardia and his great legacy was the infrastructure that made New York America's first modern city. Ironically, one of Mayor La Guardia's other great legacies was the passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act, which ended the yellow dog contacts and allowed workers the freedom to join unions.
Now it is up to Mike Bloomberg to determine his mayoral legacy. He can be the mayor who helped rebuild the city's middle-class to make us great again. Or he can be remembered as the mayor who only built up the wishes of wealthy CEOs and developers. Time will tell. Let's hope Mayor LaGuardia's spirit of humanity and passion for the working people of New York City is lurking somewhere in City Hall still today.
Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.