New York, NY – A common thread in numerous articles I’ve written recently has been employers that are making large to ludicrous amounts of money while weaseling out of paying workers a living wage — in occupations ranging from construction to cab-driving to cannabis.

Last month, building-trades unions held another protest outside the offices of developer Brookfield Properties, protesting its use of nonunion contractors with a history of wage theft and recruiting workers through “body shops” (agencies that hire primarily formerly incarcerated people and pay barely minimum wage) to build a waterfront apartment complex in Greenpoint. The available two-bedroom apartments there rent for $5,500 to $7,000 a month.

At 111 West 57th St. in Manhattan, where condominiums are currently on sale for up to $66 million, JDS, its militantly antiunion developer, used nonunion contractors like Parkside Construction, which was indicted in 2018 of felony charges that it falsified timesheets to cheat more than 500 workers out of around $3,000 each on average. At the Related Companies’ 55 Hudson Yards, laborers were hired through TradeOff, a body shop that last July agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit by 18 women. 

In Chicago, Curaleaf, which bills itself as the world’s largest marijuana company, held captive-audience meetings to dissuade the $16-an-hour workers at its Windy City Cannabis dispensary from joining United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881. Curaleaf, which owns more than 150 dispensaries and manufacturing facilities nationwide, reported that its gross profits on cannabis sales in the third quarter of 2020 had almost quadrupled over the previous year. (The Windy City Cannabis workers voted “overwhelmingly” for union representation in late February, Local 881 reported.)

Amazon might be the most egregious example. Founder Jeff Bezos’s net worth, estimated at $178 billion by Forbes magazine as of March 4, has increased by $64 billion since the pandemic began in early 2020. Yet, the company is intensely resisting a union campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, and it electronically monitors its warehouse and shipping workers so closely that they can be fired by algorithm for excessive “time off task,” like spending more than five minutes going to the bathroom. 

The size of the sums the American super-rich are siphoning up is staggering. Bezos’s $64 billion gains are more than then-richest man Bill Gates’s entire net worth was a mere 15 years ago, when I was working as an editor at a computer magazine and irked my boss when I said Gates could pay to rebuild every single house destroyed by Hurricane Katrina out of his own pocket and still be a multibillionaire. It’s enough for Bezos to give every single one of Amazon’s nearly 1.3 million employees a $100-a-week raise and a $400-a-month health-insurance policy and still come out more than $45 billion ahead.

Yet in trying to stave off the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union’s organizing drive at its Bessemer, Alabama “fulfillment center,” Amazon has been holding captive-audience meetings where workers who contest its anti-union propaganda are called to the front of the room to have their badges photographed.

Gig-economy companies don’t want to follow even the basic requirements of minimum wage, overtime, and eligibility for unemployment benefits. They structure jobs under the pretense that their workers are actually “independent contractors,” who get paid only when they’re actually bringing in money, not when they’re waiting around for the company to give them their next gig. Since California voters approved Proposition 22 last November — a ballot initiative backed by more than $200 million from Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart that repealed the state law classifying most gig workers as employees — the Albertsons supermarket chain has laid off delivery drivers and replaced them with DoorDash gig workers.

There’s not much trickle-down or wealth-sharing happening here. They are accelerating the race to the bottom that is an inevitable result of an untrammeled free market in which the employer that pays the least has a competitive advantage, at least on price. They won’t pay more unless forced to by government regulation or union power in their sector.

The $15-an-hour minimum wage, considered radical when fast-food workers began demanding it nine years ago, is now a mainstream liberal issue — although its chances of passing the Senate are next to nil unless the filibuster is repealed or modified.

A $15 minimum would be a huge improvement on the current federal minimum of $7.25, which has not been raised since 2009 and is still the wage floor in Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and North Carolina. But the $525 to $600 a week that a full-time worker would make before taxes is still short of a living wage in many parts of the country, especially if it doesn’t go into effect for another couple years. It might be enough to afford housing in rural Alabama. It’s more of a stretch in Chicago, where a single person might find a small apartment for $700 or $800 a month. 

But it’s grossly inadequate for anyone living on their own in New York City. Is there anywhere in the city where you can find an apartment for $1,200 or less, outside of public housing? I looked on a leading apartment-listing site, and found exactly 12 studios at that price. That would be 50% of income for single people, and an impossible burden for those with children to support. 

From cabbies, construction workers, and cannabis-shop cashiers, the common thread I’ve heard is that they want careers where they can have a decent standard of living, not precarious low-wage gigs.


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