Community activists push for better wages at Miami Worldcenter site

Community forum at St. John Institutional Baptist Church
Community forum at St. John Institutional Baptist Church

A coalition of pastors, labor organizers and community activists vowed on Thursday to push for higher wages and permanent jobs from the developers of the massive $1.06-billion Miami Worldcenter development.

The multi-use project will be built on 28 acres near Overtown.

“What this is really about is getting to the negotiating table,” said Bishop James Dean Adams of St. John Institutional Missionary Church in Overtown, during a packed community meeting Thursday evening. “If you’re afraid to make demands, then you’re a poor negotiator.”

On December 29, the Miami City Commission, sitting as the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, approved up to $88 million in a multi-year tax rebate plan for Miami Worldcenter Associates, a partnership that includes local developers Nitin Motwani and Art Falcone and two California-based real estate investment funds — Centurion Partners and CIM Group.

The deal still needs to be approved by the Miami-Dade County Commission.

In order to get the full rebate, the developers will have to complete 1 million square feet of retail, more than 2,000 residential units and at least 400 hotel rooms by 2021. The Forbes and Taubman companies have already announced plans to build a 765,000-square-foot mall at Miami Worldcenter in a joint venture with MWA. In another MWA partnership, Daniel Kodsi plans to build a 60-story Paramount Miami Worldcenter condo tower.

The MDM Group, which also plans to develop a gigantic 1,800-room convention-style hotel at the former Miami Arena site, is expected to seek a separate tax subsidy package for that project in the near future.

Under the current agreement, MWA only has to make “reasonable efforts” to hire up to 30 percent of its unskilled construction workforce within Overtown and then from the city’s other impoverished neighborhoods. The developer also promised to pay experienced electricians $35.71 an hour and reduce the rent of three “CRA-supported outlets” in the project by 20 percent.

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But activists complained during the community forum that there were no penalties for the developers if they failed to hire Overtown residents. Unskilled laborers are only guaranteed a wage of $11.58 an hour and $1.25 in benefits, even though the county’s “responsible wage” ordinance for a “laborer journeyman” is $14.50 an hour plus $4.67 an hour in benefits, argued Mike Hill, a researcher for the labor union Unite Here!

Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Overtown, defiantly told residents that he squeezed far more wages and commitments than the developers were willing to originally give. Thanks to him, Hardemon said, the developers agreed to pay even high school dropouts with criminal records $12 an hour instead of $8 an hour for tasks that included holding a flag or a sign.

“I’m the only commissioner who has demanded these types of salaries for our people,” he said, adding that a responsible wage ordinance he proposed for workers building projects in Miami will be discussed by the commission at 4 p.m. on Feb. 26.

Yet Adams, the pastor, griped that Hardemon refused to meet with him or labor organizers. “We would have told you not to accept the deal if you had asked us,” Adams said to thunderous applause. He later added: “It’s about time we had someone who grew some testicles and tell these people, ‘Hell no!’” At the very least, the city should have forged a “community benefits agreement” with the developers that required the hiring of nearby residents, he said.

Wendi Welsh, principal officer for the Local 355 unit of UniteHere!, pleaded with Hardemon to communicate with community and labor groups.

“We want to be an army because we don’t trust the developers,” Welsh said. “The developers are out to make money. We want to trust the city. We want to trust our commissioners. We want to trust you.”

With that trust, Welsh said the community can negotiate “real” concessions from developers the next time they want a subsidy from the CRA.

“We represent hotel workers on the beach….” Welsh said. “Our workers can make somewhere between $15 and $50 an hour inside the hotels on the beach. They get free health care with their work and it’s really good health care. They have rights on the job, and it’s awesome.”