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But this too didn't work out as planned. The other workers announced that if Otto and Luis were being booted, they would go as well. About 15 workers took the elevator downstairs where they were met by Johnson and a backup contingent of Laborers members. After a sidewalk strategy session, Johnson and another veteran organizer, Jerry Ball, who heads the union's organizing efforts in Seattle, called one of the foremen to say that the men had walked out in an unfair-labor protest, and were making an unconditional offer to return to work. This too was a tactic, designed to protect the workers' rights if the complaint reached a labor board hearing. The flummoxed foreman wasn't sure what to do. "You'll have to speak to the top boss," he told them.
The day after the protest, the Laborers invited all of the workers who had walked off the job to meet at the nearby offices of Local 79 on Eighth Avenue. Of the seven men who showed up there the next morning, all but one said they had arrived in the country illegally within recent years, leaving homes in Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico. Robert Fuchs, an immigration attorney working with the union, took general histories from each of the men, and explained their options under the law.
All of the workers said they had been dispatched to Advanced by the temp agency, R. Friends, which was listed on their paychecks. No taxes were deducted from the checks and no pay stubs provided. The men said they were told upfront at the temp agency that all hours worked would be paid at the same rate. In what the union said was an apparent dodge of overtime laws, the men received a separate check from another temp agency with the same address as R. Friends covering any hours worked beyond the 40-hour federal limit.
Last week, a woman answering the phone at R. Friends confirmed that Advanced uses workers from the agency but said she couldn't provide any information. Eugene Skowronski, the listed owner of Advanced, did not return calls. Also ducking questions was Vornado Realty, the powerful corporate owner of 2 Penn Plaza as well as many of the city's biggest office buildings. The firm is currently bidding, as part of a partnership with Related Companies, to handle the $600 million transformation of the Farley Post Office into a new midtown train station.
Johnson, the Laborers' organizing director, said there was little surprising about the problems discovered at Advanced: "Abuses of immigrant workers today are like the abuses of unskilled workers in the 1930s that organized labor fought to address. This is the next battlefront."