Drawing creative inspiration from the Halloween season, retail workers transformed themselves into ghastly zombies, slathering on white makeup and fake blood last Thursday night outside the Queens Center mall in Elmhurst. These walking undead, however, did not adhere to traditional expectations: energetic and articulate rather than listless and grunting, they had something to say more in keeping with the election season.
Curious passersby stopped to listen as a line of self-described “retail zombies” chanted “Trick or treat! Trick or treat! Working families deserve to eat!”; “No more minimum wage! We want a living wage!”; and “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!), the motto that Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America adopted long ago, and used by President Obama during his presidential campaign..
The protest was a part of the Queens Center Mall Campaign, a joint project sponsored by Make the Road New York — a grassroots organization promoting “economic justice, equity and opportunity for all New Yorkers” — and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union,which represents 45,000 workers in New York City.
Jeff Eichler, a director with the RWDSU, said the protesters’ demands were threefold: a “living wage,” defined as “$10 per hour with benefits or $11.50 per hour without benefits” for all Queens Center mall employees, “the protecting of these employees’ right to organize a union without intimidation,” and the providing of community space within the mall for English as a Second Language classes and job training programs.
Eichler also said that, though the push for those demands has been an ongoing effort for the past year, the Macerich Company, owner of Queens Center, as well as a slew of other shopping centers throughout the United States, has only agreed to one face-to-face meeting, which Eichler characterized as “not very productive.” He expressed the hope that the Halloween-themed protest might jumpstart negotiations.
A Macerich spokeswoman responded via e-mail: “We did have an introductory meeting, in which our goal was to learn more about [the Queens Center Mall Campaign] and also create greater understanding about Queens Center, how the center operates and the diverse ways that the center gives back to the community.” Additionally, the spokeswoman noted that all tenants of the mall “abide by New York State and New York City employment laws, including minimum wage laws.”
But in addressing the wage issue, specifically, the spokeswoman noted that, “Like all shopping centers across the country, Queens Center does not have a role in determining retailers’ compensation for their employees.”
Eventually, the evening’s chants gave way to the surrogate reading of “retail horror stories,” many written by employees from the mall. Collectively, the stories recounted a litany of on-the-job hardships, including employees “living paycheck to paycheck” and, in some cases, working multiple part-time jobs in the mall “without sick, personal or vacation days or medical insurance,” a floor stocker who lost his job after three years but never received an explanation why, a cashier earning the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour while standing on her feet “for seven to eight hours a day.”
RWDSU spokeswoman Diane Krauthamer explained that the actual writers of the “retail horror stories” did not read their own workplace testimonials either because they could not afford to take time off from their jobs to attend the protest or because they feared “employer retaliation” in the form of reduced working hours or outright termination.
Regarding those fears, the Macerich spokesperson wrote: “We are not able to speak on behalf of individual retailers and their business, but we do believe that all sides should enjoy the rights embodied in the First Amendment and the National Labor Relations Act.”
Still, the protest was not strictly a “by proxy” affair. There were retail workers — both from Queens Center and other city locations — on hand to personally criticize Macerich for not mandating better employee policies from its mall tenants. For example, RWDSU volunteer and retail veteran Morenike Dagbo of Staten Island voiced her strong support for a living wage and the protest’s other objectives, while also pointing to the psychological effects of the recession on retail workers, who even in the best of times, she said, “have to deal with feeling easily dispensable.”
Throughout the evening, Dagbo and the other protesters argued repeatedly that Macerich, which they said has received $48 million in property tax subsidies from Queens Center and is scheduled to receive over $50 million from the mall in the coming years, should act in the interests of Queens retail workers not for altruistic reasons, but rather out of a sense of obligation.
To that line of reasoning, the Macerich spokeswoman responded: “It is important to remember that retailers operate businesses separate from Queens Center and that retailers have a choice in where they choose to do business. Tilting the playing field — where one shopping center requires retailers to pay a certain wage and a property down the street does not have the same requirement — puts one site at a competitive disadvantage to the other.”
Eugene Lerner of Brooklyn, a volunteer with the Common Threads Art Collective, a cooperative committee affiliated with the RWDSU, spotlighted Mayor Bloomberg’s opposition to the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, a bill before the City Council.Offering his own biting assessment, Lerner observed, “The mayor says that poor people shouldn’t buy [soda] with food stamps, but [the Macerich Company] is getting tens of millions of food stamps, and nobody’s telling them what to do.”
As they were about to leave, the protesters uttered a final warning to Macerich executives and their retail tenants: “We’ll be back!”