By Mike McPhate
With rising rents along its river banks and developers suddenly vying for its abandoned buildings, many say East Harlem is poised for a renaissance.
Thanks to a recent decision though, it will be a period of prosperity that some may have to enjoy on a $7-per-hour wage.
The neighborhood’s signature renewal project is the East River Plaza, a giant shopping center planned to open in 2008 between 116th and 119th streets. To allay local fears of traffic and displacement, the developers promised great shopping, millions of dollars in tax revenue, and most importantly, up to 2,000 news jobs.
Many of those jobs became less enticing though, when it was announced last month that a Target store would take the place of Costco, long slated to co-anchor the complex with a Home Depot. While labor experts call Costco one of the country’s most generous employers, starting employees at $10 per hour, Target pays as little as $6.25 per hour in some parts of the country, according to workers.
“[Target] screws workers over,” said Bernie Hesse, a union leader who has tried to organize the store’s employees in St. Paul, MN. “We hear all the time about the low pay, the abuse, and poor management people.”
Target, which keeps details of its wages and benefits tightly guarded, did not return several calls seeking comment.
The plaza’s developer, Forest City Ratner, which is co-developing the site with Blumenfeld Development Group, said Target’s record of local hiring played a role in the decision to favor the store. “Target and Forest City have worked together at [Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and at Queens Place in Queens] to make local hiring a priority,” said executive Bruce Bender in a statement.
A spokesperson declined to discuss whether the developer addressed Target’s labor practices when evaluating its bid.
“Big box” store opponents—who decry poor wages, the evisceration of small business, and so-called “sweat shop” labor—have trained their energies in recent years mostly on Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer. But Target’s employment practices are very similar, said Patty Edwards, a retail analyst with the Seattle-based consulting firm Wentworth, Hauser & Violich.
Both companies oppose unions, pay comparably small wages, and tightly restrict health care benefits. Hesse’s union, United Food and Commercial Workers, estimates that less than half of Target’s workers are covered by its health insurance.
While a public relations crisis has stunted WalMart’s growth in recent years, rival Target has slipped beneath the radar thanks to its smaller size and a more hip clientele, said Edwards. “They’ve been quite happy to go along with what is happening,” she added.
As Target grows however, adding 600 stores for a total of 2,000 by 2010, “big box” opponents have begun to attack the chain more vocally. At last year’s Target shareholder meeting, activists passed out leaflets that said Target CEO Robert Ulrich earned $19,050 per hour in 2004, while the average Target employee earned $13,000 per year.
The campaign was jolted earlier this year when Chicago’s city council passed the “big box” bill in July, requiring local retailers pay $10 per hour plus benefits by 2010. Target threatened to nix its plan to open a store in the city, and last month the mayor vetoed the bill. Many were outraged by the company’s refusal to pay a salary that would net full-time employees only $20,800 per year.
Some leaders in Harlem, host to 13 housing projects, say even poorly paid jobs are better than none. Carmen Vasquez, director of East Harlem’s Hope Community, a neighborhood-building organization, said that while Target is not the ideal employer, sometimes you have to take the good with the bad.
“We know Target historically is not giving you the best salaries, but they are consistent and they are viable," she said.