Workers' Rights Center Opens in CNY
Patricia Rector

José Oliva – coordinator of the national Interfaith Worker Justice Workers’ Center Network, which includes the local workers’ center – speaks at a rally on behalf of workers of the Casa del Pueblo Mexican grocery store in Chicago, 2004.

According to a 2003 study on low-wage work*, about 27.5 million Americans - nearly 24% of the labor force - earn less than $8.70 an hour, not enough to keep a family of four out of poverty, even working full-time year-round. Most of these jobs are neither year-round, nor full-time, and thus deprive workers access to the most basic of benefits.

Access to a worker's rights becomes even more complex if he or she is non-white, speaks little or no English or lacks official work documents. Fear overtakes their lives and decisions. As author/activist Janice Fine puts it, "ethnicity, race and immigration status have an enormous impact on the jobs they do, the compensation they receive, and the possibilities they have for redress when mistreated by employers."

The workers themselves are the bedrock of our economy, yet they are too often taken for granted, and to some are invisible. They are home health care aides, food service and factory workers, seasonal migrants, group home workers, hotel maids, retail or call center workers. Many work the night shift. They may ride busses to work. Most struggle with chronic debt because the wages they earn don't cover the basics, and a single medical problem can sink them financially. In economically depressed Upstate New York, the percentage of low-wage workers is most certainly higher than the national average, especially in inner cities and in outlying rural areas.

Working in solidarity with such workers and fighting for economic justice is the primary mission of the CNY Labor-Religion Coalition (LRC), whose motto is "Worker Justice is a Moral Value." Since 1996, the LRC has fought for workers' rights at Landis Plastics, spearheaded Syracuse's Living Wage Ordinance, supported striking nursing home workers, and in January 2007, opened the Workers' Rights Center of Central New York (WRC).

The new WRC (232 E. Onondaga St., 2nd floor of Plymouth Church) is not a social service organization, but focuses instead on workers' rights and the mobilization of progressive community allies: labor unions, religious and community groups, labor lawyers and supporters from colleges and universities. In support of the WRC and other projects, the CNY LRC will host its 6th Annual Solidarity Supper on Sunday, May 6th (see box).

The center has already hosted information and strategy sessions for workers and worker advocates. Upcoming events include:

"Protecting Your Health and Your Life at the Workplace," a workshop given in Spanish by Diana Ortiz, chair of the Latino Taskforce Team and an area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) - Thursday, June 7 (5:30 pm) and Saturday, June 9 (11 am) - at the Spanish Action League (La Liga), 700 Oswego St., Syracuse.

Two back-to-back workshops will occur on Saturday, June 9 at the WRC: "Solidarity Work with Immigrants - Issues Regarding Status" with Jim Williams at 10 am, former director of the National Employment Law Project. Pat Rector will also offer a briefing on the New Sanctuary Movement. Then, at 11 am Chris Adams, area director of OSHA, will offer "Trenches & Scaffolds, Ladders & Hardhats: Reducing Workplace Risks." This workshop will be valuable to building trades workers, particularly if they have questions about situations they've observed that might pose a danger to workers.

"Unemployment Insurance: From Application to Administrative Hearing" rounds out the workshop series for the month, with Administrative Law Judge Herbert Fowler speaking at the WRC on Saturday, June 23 from 10 am to noon. Judge Fowler's workshop is not open to those who have an active unemployment insurance claim. It is intended for worker advocates, clergy, human service professionals, or those who simply want to learn more about how New York's unemployment insurance program works.

These events are a small preview of what's to come at the new Workers' Rights Center of CNY. For more information about the WRC or to get involved, please contact Patricia Rector at (315) 446-2380. We especially need people to translate our events into Spanish and other languages.

* Low-wage America: How Employers Are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace by Eileen Appelbaum, Annette Bernhardt, and Richard J. Murnane, Russell Sage Foundation, 2003.
Annual CNY Labor-Religion Coalition Solidarity Supper

Sunday, May 6th

Holiday Inn (Seventh North and Electronics Parkway in Liverpool)

The dinner will feature the nation's leading expert on worker centers, Janice Fine, whose topic will be "Engaging Communities in Worker Solidarity." Cash bar at 5:30 pm and dinner at 6 pm. Cost is $60 per person; tables of 8 are $400.
Make checks payable to CNY Labor-Religion Coalition.

RSVP by 5 pm Tuesday May 1, to Patti at (315) 431-4040 or e-mail her at For more information, contact Patti



Pat Rector is coordinator of the CNY Labor-Religion Coalition