November 19, 2013

Roundtable Highlights Work of ILR Alumni, Labor Organizers

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Labor leaders and ILR alumni spoke about fighting to end discrimination against LGBTQ workers, earning backpay for workers and working to give a voice to those workers who don’t have one at the 11th Annual Industrial and Labor Relations Labor Roundtable Friday.

At the event, 17 labor leaders — including research analysts, executive directors and lawyers — shared their experiences working for labor and social movements.

Some of the guests were alumni who recently graduated from ILR, including Alison Lupico ’11, research associate for AFT, an association for educators, school-related personnel and healthcare professionals; Robin Raynor ’13, organizer for UAW, an organization that represents workers in the auto industry as well as aircraft manufacture and other industries.

Because jobs in labor often demand that people travel frequently, money cannot be the only motivation for pursuing a career in the field, said Ashley Jenkins, an organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — a major trade union.

Even then, the rewards are worth the challenges, according to Jenkins.

“When I started to work for AFSCME in 2008, right after college, I was working in Philadelphia at the Obama campaign. The night he won was the most amazing moment; I was really a part of it,” she said.

Whereas some of the event’s panelists became involved in labor rights by chance — including Jenkins herself, who found out about the labor movement during a college career fair — other speakers said they always knew they wanted to be activists.

Repole ‘06, an ILR alumnus who was a member of both the Cornell Civil Liberties Union and the Cornell Organization for Labor Action during his undergraduate years, said although he worked as a paralegal at a law firm after law school, he always knew “that was not my path.”

Now, Repole is a lawyer for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, where he represents broadcast television and radio workers in a range of workplace disputes with employers.

Some of the leaders who spoke at the event are involved with major labor campaigns. Jonathan Cartagena, a labor organizer and one of the founding members of the Retail Action Project — an organization dedicated to improving opportunities and workplace standards in the retail industry — began working at Yellow Rat Bastard, a clothing company in New York City, when he was 17 years old.

“At that time, [the company] was actually paying workers below than minimal wages and keeping them over time. There was also a lot of discrimination, especially with LGBTQ workers,” Cartagena said.

With the help of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, Cartagena and many fellow Yellow Rate Bastard workers won a lawsuit against the store. The suit resulted in the restoration of more than $1.4 million in back pay for the employees, according to Cartagena.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, senior lecturer for the Department of Industrial and Labor Relations , said the goal of the event was to portray a view of organized labor that may not be represented in the media.

“We love this event because there are very few chances on campus and in your lives where you as students get to learn about labor and social justice organizations. We have people from all across campus, and a lot of you are freshmen and sophomores,” she said.