They opened up a grocery store in the Upper East Side, running it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They employed four people.
Their son, now a state lawmaker, recalled that when his parents first opened the grocery, there were seven mom-and-pop shops on the block. According to Kim, they have slowly faded away, replaced by corporations like Chase Bank and A&P Supermarket.
“Growing up, I’ve seen some of the struggles personally of what it means to be a small business owner and an immigrant,” Kim said. “What my parents didn’t realize was when they arrived here 35 years ago, the game in this country was already rigged to begin with.”
The Flushing legislator said under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, many antitrust laws that protected small businesses were “ripped apart for the sake of what they deemed efficiency and productivity.”
With the available technology today, Kim argued, small business owners know how to be efficient, productive and keep prices down. But large corporations still dominate mom-and-pop stores, and antitrust laws are not being used to keep them in check, he said.
“It’s about greed,” Kim said. “It’s about the concentrated few wanting to continue to rig the system to oppress small business owners while they walk away with all the profits.”
Last Wednesday, Kim joined Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout at One Fulton Square in Flushing to discuss how to protect small businesses. Teachout came in second in the recent Democratic primary for attorney general to Letitia James.
Teachout, an expert in antitrust law, said the law and enforcement agencies have been used to protect big businesses, not mom-and-pop stores. She said New York, at its best, should have thriving small businesses and strong immigrant communities to create innovative ideas.
“Small businesses aren’t just about the money being made,” she said. “They’re about the nature of the way we live.”
Specifically, Teachout pointed to the Donnelly Act, enacted in 1899, which is New York’s antitrust law. It prohibits price-fixing, bid-rigging, monopolization and other practices.
According to the New York attorney general’s website, the office is permitted to sue for civil fines up to $1 million for corporations, and $100,000 for individuals, for violation of the Donnelly Act.
But the law professor said that act “hasn’t been used as much as it can,” which has allowed corporations to thrive at the expense of small businesses.
“These are tools that are like rusting swords that we haven’t used in generations,” Teachout said, “but we have to use because the federal government hasn’t been enforcing it.”
She pointed to the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile as an example of when the state could have used its power to block the decision. Kim said Amazon has a “complete monopoly” over the supply chain ecosystem, which nets billions for corporate leaders and investors, but not for workers.
On a more local level, big box stores like Target have been entering the retail scene in New York City, including proposed sites in Astoria, Elmhurst and East Village.
Queens Neighborhoods United, an anti-gentrification advocacy group, has been fighting the planned Target in Elmhurst. For months, members have spoken about how a Target would displace small business owners who sell similar products.
Another local example is in Flushing, where Kim said there used to be family-owned pharmacies in commercial areas. Now, those businesses are “squeezed out” because most of the supply chain of prescription drugs are owned by conglomerates like CVS and Duane Reade.
“They bully the markets, they undermine people’s ability to compete fairly,” Kim said. “And the state, and elected officials who are supposed to enforce that, they’re looking the other way.”
Teachout said before 1981, when Reagan was in office, the country used to enforce antitrust laws “all the time.” She stressed that the most important aspect of protecting small businesses is recognizing all the tools government has at its disposal.
“It is not a fact of nature that two or three companies control most industries, that is a choice of law and power,” she said. “We can choose to have a thriving small business community.”
Kim said the current state Department of Financial Services values efficiency, but the Flushing lawmaker has proposed legislation to add resiliency as another measurement of economic success.
“I would give power back to local economies, make it more fair,” he said. “Make sure our local companies have a shot at competing in this market.”