January 28, 2009

Groups Decry Wage Theft

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Last week’s news of the local labor law violations at Ithaca’s Taste of Thai and Tamarind restaurants has generated strong responses from the Cornell community.
Cornell Organization for Labor Action, a student organization that promotes economic justice, expressed gratitude that the Department of Labor, in conjunction with the Tompkins County Worker’s Center, uncovered that 36 workers were cumulatively being underpaid $28,388.
“COLA is glad the Tompkins County Worker’s Center was able to assist the workers in securing all of the wages and tips they earned, as well as being treated fairly and given one day off per week, to comply with New York State law,” COLA collectively stated in an e-mail.
Stephanie Knight ’09, president of COLA, said, “It was upsetting to hear about the labor law violations at these Ithaca restaurants, and it made me wonder how many more violations are going unreported because the workers are afraid to come forward with their complaints. Hopefully, this case will encourage other workers to speak up if they are facing similar situations.”
COLA works with TCWC in ensuring fair labor practices in a variety of projects. The two organizations are presently working to make Ithaca part of the SweatFree Consortium, a group which uses municipal purchasing power to hire factory inspectors and prevent tax dollars from going to sweatshops.
“The idea is to get Ithaca [to] sign legislation that would require the city to contract all municipal city uniforms from sources that don’t use sweatshops,” said Ben Traslavina ’08, a member of COLA.
President Barack Obama, in his campaign, promised organized labor that he would push for the passage of Employment Free Choice Act, legislation designed to facilitate unionization that could prevent such labor law violations in the future.
According to the AFL-CIO website, EFCA “would enable working people to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions by restoring workers’ freedom to choose for themselves whether to join a union.”
In reference to the recent labor violations in Ithaca, COLA stated, “COLA is a huge advocate for EFCA, and it would be the ideal next step for reforming U.S. labor law to prevent and to minimize the occurrence of these and other violations in the future. If workers were free from intimidation and able to independently choose a union to represent them, this could potentially lead to higher wages, improved working conditions and collective bargaining agreements that enforce these things and keep management’s power in check.”
The National Labor Relations Act is currently the governing law on the rights of employees to bargain collectively. However, employee unionization is difficult to achieve under NLRA, a problem EFCA is meant to amend.
“[NLRA] is weak and poorly enforced, and workers no longer are able to exercise their right to choose a union free from coercion, threats and intimidation,” said Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner, industrial and labor relations.
Bronfenbrenner, who has spent 20 years researching employer and union behavior and whose data has served as much of the basis for most of the discussion on why EFCA is so critically needed at this time, remarked, “If EFCA passed, workers would not have to literally jump through rings of fire of the employer campaign in order to organize.”
EFCA further discourages employers from unfair labor practices by imposing stiffer penalties of a $20,000 fine on the employer for each willful or repetitive violation. EFCA was first proposed to the 110th Congress in February 2007. It passed the House of Representatives in March but failed to pass the Senate in June the same year due to a filibuster. The passage of the bill remains a possibility in the current 111th Congress.
“I believe the current labor law system is broken and we need comprehensive labor law reform. EFCA would be an important first step in that direction, but only a first step,” said Bronfenbrenner.