East Village Community Coalition

There is an organization in the “East Village” called the East Village Community Coalition. I don’t know how long they’ve been around, but a whois search shows their web site was created on 08-Jun-2004, so it’s probably safe to assume they came into being some time around then.

They’re pretty secretive, too. Their registrant, admin, and tech contacts are masked. But that’s not why I’m writing about them. I want to discuss their
Guide to East Village Local Shops.

This is from their web site:

evcc-shopping-guide

Point by point:

Choose creativity and personality over uniformity – If you shop in one place because you like the color of the paint, or don’t shop in another because you don’t like the awning, it’s all the same. Besides, many local shops show neither creativity nor personality, and uniformity, in itself, is not a bad thing. And there are plenty of chain stores that vary their appearance. I suspect there will be more of this in the future, as they try to meet the demand for this type of “creativity and personality”.

Provide economic diversity and stability – It makes no sense to speak of “economic diversity” within such a small area. A country might have economic diversity, even a city, but when you break it down to ever-smaller localities, like neighborhoods, you can’t maintain this. It makes no sense, under any mode of production, to have manufacturing, distribution, retail, finance, agriculture, etc., all in one square block.

I doubt that the EVCC really expects manufacturing or agriculture to exist here. They understand the division of labor. They’re talking about retail only, which means that they want to take the level of productive forces as they’re given, and freeze them there.

Keep more of your money in your community – Does shopping locally keep money within the community? Leaving aside for now what “the community” really is, let’s set the boundaries as Houston Street on the South, 14th Street on the North, the East River on the East, and Third Avenue on the West. Imagine this is a closed system, with no money coming in and no money going out. (If the “East Village” were actually isolated from the rest of the global economy, it would die off in no time. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine this.)

All value, in the capitalist sense, is created within this closed system. No money/resources/people come in or go out, and everything functions under the capitalist mode of production. People go to work and make commodities that are sold only inside these boundaries – wages to the workers, profits to the owners. Right away you can see, in a very short time, there would be a crisis of overproduction. Assuming everyone can buy one of everything produced on their wages, once they have what they need they won’t need more. The producers would have to look outside these boundaries to sell their wares, and the local paradigm is demolished. This is essentially the national economy, reduced to the area described above.

And what about the surplus population? There are not enough jobs provided by the local businesses in the “East Village” for everyone who lives here. People will have to emigrate to other neighborhoods and send money back home. Which is, of course, what actually happens. Almost no one who lives in this geographical area works here. While the EVCC tells us to keep the money in the neighborhood, they couldn’t survive without its coming from outside the neighborhood.

Which is a good thing, because it’s the retailers themselves who are sending the money out! Since there is no manufacturing or agriculture here, local retailers sell commodities manufactured somewhere else, or with raw materials originating somewhere else, whether it’s tchotchkes at Alphabets or coffee at Mud.

The first section of EVCC’s Guide is Cafes. Cafe types, and some of their non-local ingredients, are:

Cafe Type Imports
Bakeries Butter, Flour, Sugar
Cafes Coffee
Candy & Chocolate Chocolate, Sugar
Ice Cream Eggs, Milk, Sugar, Vanilla
Juice Bar Fruits, Vegetables
Tea Shop Honey, Sugar, Tea

 
The next section is Fashion. Most of the retailers don’t make what they sell: Dinosaur Hill, Jane’s Exchange, Village Kids Footwear, etc. It’s possible that some others do, but they don’t make the sewing machines or material or thread. The other categories are: Galleries; Gifts; Florist; Health and Beauty; Culture, Music, Entertainment; and Specialty Services. It’s the same with all of them.

Create local jobs with fair living wages – The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows little variation in pay for professionals and managers by establishment size, but differentials widen as you move down the status hierarchy. Data entry clerks in small establishments earned 7% below the national average, while those in large firms earned 20% above. Gaps for janitors were wider, and those for laborers were wider still.

This fact persists regardless of occupation, industrial sector, education, experience, geographical location, union status. Workers in larger firms are more likely to be covered by company-paid health insurance and have some type of retirement plan. Also, worker safety is worse in small businesses — “Size and risk are inversely correlated at all levels of scale,” according to an International Labour Organization report.1

Sustain small business owners who strengthen the local economy – Redundant.

People who make the claims made by EVCC like to point to studies that show how much money stays in the community with small business than with larger businesses. One study conducted in Chicago found that for every $100 spent by customers, $43 stayed in the area for chains, while $68 stayed in the area for non-chains. One problem with this is that the geographical boundaries were the entire city of Chicago, so money that moved from a poor neighborhood to a richer neighborhood was still considered to be “local”. Likewise with the “East Village”. Many of the owners/workers do not live here. The money they make leaves the neighborhood daily.

A bigger problem is that this is only a measure of profits. For the chain, some part of the profits, or even gross revenue, is sent to the corporate office, leaving the manager with less to spend than the owner, but this assumes that the owners spend all their profits. Owners reinvest profits, or they use them to pay their more-expensive mortgages or vacations or restaurant bills. The argument ultimately centers on filling the capitalist class’s luxury-goods market, something that doesn’t even exist in the “East Village”.

Defend our neighborhood’s identity – Is the neighborhood’s identity really defined by its retail shops? This is definitely a petite-bourgeois perspective! Anyway, this neighborhood’s identity was defined by the real estate industry, not the retail industry. The term “East Village” was coined by real estate developers in the 1960s as a way to attract renters, by linking the area above Houston Street with Greenwich Village, and disassociating it from the Lower East Side’s immigrant, working-class roots.

Fight the lie that “low prices” at chain stores makes up for the loss of local business ownership – Low prices benefit workers, local business ownership benefits owners. Welcome to the class struggle.

***

A few things about small businesses that I’ve written about before, but which bear repeating:

Unemployment Insurance – If employees are paid in cash, there is no record of their employment, making it impossible for them to collect unemployment when they lose their job.

OSHA Requirements – If a company has fewer than 25 employees, their penalty is cut by 60 percent. If the business has fewer than 10 employees, they’re exempt from many requirements that obligate them to report workplace injuries.

Discrimination Laws – Federal laws against discrimination in the workplace do not always apply to small businesses. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to employers with 15 or more employees. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies only to employers of 20 or more people.

Employee Health Insurance – Beginning in 2014, employers will be expected to pay a “shared responsibility fee” for health insurance coverage under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. Small businesses are exempt from this rule. If the company has fewer than 50 employees, they have no healthcare responsibilities.2

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1The Small Business Myth
2Small Business Exemptions

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The Bodega Walk or: Unintended Consequences

You may remember from such posts as No 7-Eleven on Avenue A that I was was unable to attend the Bodega Walk held February 2, so I decided I would visit the bodegas myself. I did that this weekend. I can’t say that I discovered anything to challenge the assumptions I wrote about earlier, but I did discover one thing, one unintended consequence of the bodega walks, which I’ll address at the end of this post.

I put together a list of questions that I would ask the owners and the the employes, respectively. When I first thought about doing this, I had in mind to speak to the employees as well as the owners, but then I realized that no employee would be able to speak freely with the owner present — this is true regardless of the job — so I abandoned that idea. I decided to ask the owners the Employee questions. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t know the answers, after all.

These are the questions I prepared:

To owners:
Do you own this building?
How much do you pay in rent?
Do you live in this neighborhood?
How many people work for you?
Are you worried about 7-Eleven moving into the space on Avenue A and 11th?
What do you think the greatest impact will be on your business?
What are your best-selling items?

To employees:
Are you paid at least minimum wage?
Are you paid in cash or by check?
Do you get paid sick days? Vacation days?
Are you paid time-and-a-half for overtime?

In all of these bodegas, I met only one owner. It seems that, while Sunday afternoon was a good time for me to venture out, it’s not the time when most owners are on the premises. I asked him the Owner questions above: he does not own the building; he declined to answer the rent question; he lives in the neighborhood; he employs three people; he thinks the 7-Eleven “on the corner” will have a big impact on his business. Since he specified the corner, I asked if another bodega opening on the corner would have the same impact, or was it because it was a 7-Eleven that the impact would be negative? He wasn’t sure. He thinks the greatest impact on his business will be that 7-Eleven has cheaper products. “I have Boar’s Head,”(1) he said. He didn’t know what his best selling items were: “Sandwiches, Cheerios…”.

Then I asked him the Employee questions. I have to say that none of his answers were convincing. Are your employees related? A shrug of the shoulders and a hesitant Yeah. Maybe he thought I meant related to each other? Do you pay your employees at least minimum wage? An equivocating Yes. (It may be that he was caught off-guard by the question and had to quickly think of the ramifications of answering it, but it left me wondering.) Are they paid in cash or by check? Cash. Do they receive paid sick/vacation days? Puckering his lips and raising his shoulders, Yeah. Really? Yeah. The way he responded, I thought that maybe he didn’t understand the question. I thanked him for his time, and set out for the other stores.

At none of the other stores was the owner present. At one, I spoke with a Manager. He said he couldn’t answer the Owner questions, but for Employees he answered: minimum wage, paid in cash, no sick days. In another place, an employee answered all of my Employee questions without hesitation, but told me: You know, 7-Eleven employees don’t have paid sick days either. Only when you have a union do you get those things. At another, one of the employees became very agitated when I asked my questions. He complained about people coming into the store — seven people in the past week, according to him — asking all of these questions about 7-Eleven. He said he was not the owner nor the manager, but told the other employee not to answer any of my questions, and told me I should leave.

This is where the unintended consequences come in. Many bodegas employ undocumented workers. With all of the attention being focussed on them — with the tours and the follow-up visits — I suspect many of these workers go home at night fearful they will lose their jobs, or be deported. Maybe it’s unlikely, but they don’t know who all of these people are, coming in all of a sudden, asking questions. It’s not my intention to expose undocumented workers, but to point out that focussing attention on these bodegas might end up hurting the people most vulnerable. I’m not sure what the No 7-Eleven people hope to achieve with their bodega walks, but if nothing else, they should know that they are affecting the workers in ways they may not have considered. It may be that they don’t care, given some of the comments I’ve seen in other blogs on this topic, and the fact that the leaders of this effort are small-business owners themselves. But if they don’t, it’s something the people in the neighborhood should care about.

If 7-Eleven is to be compared unfavorably to them, then we need to take a broader look at bodegas. All of the workers in the stores I visited are paid in cash. That means that not only are the owners not paying into Social Security, but no unemployment is paid either, so that when employees lose their jobs, they can’t claim unemployment benefits. They won’t even be able to prove they worked. I didn’t get to ask anyone if they were paid time-and-a-half for overtime, but I wouldn’t bet on it. 7-Eleven employees do not get paid sick days, no paid health insurance, and have no prospect for advancement.(2) The thing that puts them in a better position is that they work for a company with a visible profile, and have the chance to organize, the way Starbuck’s and Walmart employees have been.

The situation for workers is bad everywhere. To the degree that the people opposing 7-Eleven are apathetic to the conditions of the people who work in the bodegas, or at 7-Eleven, I cannot bring myself to support their effort.

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(1) Boar’s Head negotiates deals with retailers that in some cases make its meats the only premium brand in the store.
(2)
rocunited-7-eleven
Chart by Restaurant Opportunities Center United.