Workers’ Center: Organizing Over Advocacy

From the May 2015 PNL #842

by Yanira Rodríguez and Ben Kuebrich

 


Members of the Workers’ Center recover wages at a farm in Lowville, NY.
Photo courtesy of the Workers’ Center of CNY

As May Day approaches we reflect on the value of our local Workers’ Center as it creatively mobilizes resources to bring about workplace justice. Through volunteering with the Workers’ Center of CNY, we have witnessed a model that puts workers at the center of decision making. The Workers’ Center gives us a vision of what is possible, a people’s democracy that is not truncated by the limits of established structures or traditional unionizing efforts and that acts creatively and passionately to resist wage theft and workplace abuses.

 

A current class action lawsuit against an apple processing plant in Oswego, NY that produces a product called Grab Apples helps to illustrate the power and possibility in this type of grassroots labor organizing.

Recently, a number of workers from this plant came to the Workers’ Center. Workers alleged that the company made them wait, unpaid, for up to two hours before work began. When several workers left during this period of unpaid waiting, they were fired. Further, workers allege that the company regularly failed to give workers full lunch breaks, instead clocking them out for an hour while requiring them to continue working.

“There’s other places where this has happened to me, and one just takes it,” said Marina Baltazar, one of the five plaintiffs. “I didn’t know I had rights, but the way they fired us was unjust and that’s why I directed myself to the Workers’ Center. I found we all have rights and we have to stand up for them.” Baltazar said she wants the company to be held accountable for keeping workers waiting to work and withholding compensation. “Things are still the same since we were fired and they need to change,” said Baltazar.

Unlike with some organizations that might provide direct services (which provide temporary relief but do not address root causes), workers from the plant came to talk with members of the organization, fellow workers, to decide on a course of action. This included bringing in a lawyer and eventually filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of five workers.  

Through discussion with Teague Paterson, a local labor lawyer who has taken on the case, workers learned that if waiting is a condition of employment then it is work and must be paid. This and other examples of wage theft became the center of the lawsuit.

But organizing does not stop at the pursuit of legal aid. “We can use the law without leaving behind the collective organizing” said Rebecca Fuentes, a lead organizer with the center. “While laws provide some protections for workers, we have to make them work,” said Fuentes. For example, in response to countless workplace safety issues, workers organized to bring their stories to representatives of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration calling on OSHA to do surprise inspections of local farms. “OSHA only does inspections when there is a fatality or there is a complaint. So the same farms where workers were getting injured were hardly ever being inspected,” said Fuentes. As a result of worker-lead organizing through documenting stories of injuries and sharing testimonies of families of workers who had died in NY farms, OSHA developed a Local Emphasis Program for Dairy Farm Operation. The program is designed to carry out surprise inspections of local farms to make sure they comply with health and safety standards.

Grab Apples

Up to 850,000 students in New York City schools eat Grab Apples for their school lunch, opening plastic bags of the pre-sliced fruit. The company has seen rapid growth in recent years because of its growing public school customer base with an estimated sales volume of 12.3 million dollars. With exploitative labor practices, Grab Apples feeds school children and profits. It also wins awards for business. In 2010, the Dygert family, who owns the company, was awarded Manufacturer of the Year by the SUNY Small Business Development Center.
 This company has depended on state and federal funding to incubate and finance its operations. Grab Apples received 7.5 million dollars in contracts from the Department of Defense between 2002 and 2009 and $800,000 in tax credits from the state via the Empire Development fund. Despite the company’s financial success and business accolades, and its dependence on public funds, workers allege that Grab Apples does not adhere to minimum state and federal labor law requirements.

Upcoming Events
On May 1st there will be a “Rally for Dairy Workers Rights” in Lowville, NY. The rally will speak up against violence in the workplace and wage theft.
The Workers’ Center of Central New York holds workers’ meetings, open to all types of workers on the third Thursday of every month.
Visit http://workerscentercny.org/ for more information.

Yanira and Ben are volunteers with the Workers’ Center of Central New York.

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