Why isn’t there a “stop-and-frisk” program to combat the epidemic of wage theft?
For the last several weeks, a federal courtroom in lower Manhattan has been packed with observers for Floyd v. the City of New York, a case that is literally putting the New York Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policy on trial.
On March 22, only a few blocks away from the courthouse, dozens of activists organized by Brandworkers International protested the very different law enforcement policy that the city has toward business owners who violate labor law: giving them taxpayer dollars.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) recently launched the Food Manufacturers Growth Fund, a $10 million loan program meant to help “small businesses in the food manufacturing industry looking to expand…[in] an exceedingly difficult financing environment.” Some 90 percent of the loan money will come from Goldman Sachs and its “10,000 Small Businesses” program, and the rest will come from the city.
On the face of it, it’s hard to object to providing loans to small manufacturing businesses that could broaden the economic base of New York City. But one potential problem is that the food processing industry—like other low-wage employers in New York City and elsewhere—is rife with labor law violators.
According to a 2008 study by the New York City Community and Labor Advisory Board, over 50 percent of low-wage workers told researchers that they had been illegally shortchanged by their employer the previous workweek. These employer violations, which range from minimum wage and overtime violations to unpaid extra work and numerous other scams, are known as wage theft, and the study found that victims lost an average of 15 percent of their total income.
By contrast, around 2 percent of all New Yorkers report theft, violence or any other crime to the police over the course of an entire year.
Here’s another way to look at it: Given that only 6 percent of the targets of “stop and frisk”—overwhelmingly young people of color—are arrested for any reason, it is safe to assume that people stopped by the NYPD are far more likely to be on their way to or from being robbed by an employer than they are to have committed a crime themselves.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are willing to blatantly violate the Fourth Amendment—which guarantees the right to be secure…against unreasonable searches and seizures—in the name of supposedly fighting street crime. So what is the city doing to combat the crime wave of wage theft that victimizes far more New Yorkers?
That’s the question being posed by Brandworkers in its campaign to ensure that the EDC is giving loans only to companies that are in compliance with labor law. The EDC has agreed to adopt a code of conduct drawn up by Brandworkers, but has rendered that fairly meaningless by refusing to reveal which companies have applied for loans. In other words, the administrators of a program largely funded by Goldman Sachs is asking a labor organization to just trust them.
Not surprisingly, Brandworkers organizer Joseph Sanchez says that’s not good enough:
The Fund is an opportunity to grow jobs at companies who are going to abide by the law and pay their workers overtime and for the hours that they work, provide a good working environment. But in order to do that, you have to have standards and a transparent process for the program. Without that, you really run the risk of loaning money to companies that don’t comply with the law.
The issues facing food manufacturing workers, many of whom are immigrants with and without documentation, go far beyond wage theft. There is widespread sexual and racial harassment and abuse and illegally working conditions.
One of New York’s thousands of safety violations came to light tragically on January 24, 2011, in the Chinantla tortilla factory in Bushwick. That morning, Juan Baten, an immigrant from Guatemala and father of a 7-month-old child, was crushed to death in a mixing machine that lacked a legally required machine guard.
After Baten’s death, Brandworkers led a campaign that ultimately resulted in the company owner, Erasmo Ponse, being convicted of a series of labor violations. According to Sanchez, however, there is nothing out of the ordinary about Tortillaria Chinantla: “The conditions that led to Juan Baten’s death weren’t unique to Chinantla. When OSHA investigated Chinantla after his death, they did all the tortilla factories, and they all had the same violations. The tragedy that happened there could have happened at any one of those factories.”
Many Brandworkers members are particularly alarmed about the Food Manufacturers Growth Fund, because it is rumored—and without EDC transparency, there can only be rumors—that Tortilleria Chinantla is one of the companies rumored to be applying for a loan.
Thus, on the morning of March 22, dozens of activists packed an EDC meeting and, in a silent protest, held masks in front of their faces that read “We Remember Juan Baten” with a picture of the deceased Brooklyn factory worker.
For Brandworkers, a six-year-old organization that works with the Industrial Workers of the World to organize workers in New York’s food processing and distribution industries, the campaign against the EDC is new territory in moving beyond the issues of a single factory and taking on a citywide policy. According to Sanchez:
We’ve led several workplace justice campaigns where workers were able to recover significant amounts of unpaid wages and overtime. That’s shaped the interest in this program, because the more you look at the industry, the more it becomes apparent that the problems that exist aren’t a few bad apples, but it’s the norm for companies.”
Brandworkers is part of a constellation of organizations waging successful campaigns among New York City’s low-wage workers in recent years. Many of these campaigns have not sought to form conventional unions, whether because they have a different organizational model, as is the case with Brandworkers/IWW or because a union drive is not seen as a pragmatic early step. In either case, these campaigns have relied on a combination of direct action at the workplace and legislative efforts to improve conditions for low-wage workers.
A couple of the latter are bearing some fruit. New York state is set to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 over the next three years. The New York City Council is set to pass—over Bloomberg’s veto—a law guaranteeing most workers the right to five paid sick days per year. Neither of these laws go nearly far enough to address the daily struggles of low-wage workers in the most expensive city in the country, but both are an indication that many politicians recognize the growing clout of a budding movement.
But laws only matter if they are enforced. According to recent testimony in Floyd v. the City of New York, Ray Kelly has been too busy being “focused on [Blacks and Latinos] because he wanted to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police” to pay attention to the labor crimes committed against some of those same people of color on his watch.
The cops may be asleep on the job as usual, but at least the Brandworkers campaign against the Economic Development Corporation is an important attempt to bring some law and order to Michael Bloomberg’s crime-ridden metropolis.
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