News & Politics

Labor Violations in Congress and in NY Streets

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Wage justice has long been the signature issue of labor lawyer M. Patricia Smith, and that is exactly what so spooked the Right when President Obama proposed her last year as top attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor. For nine months, Republicans blocked Smith’s appointment.

But last week, Democrats barreled the nomination through, using one of their last 60-vote majorities before Republican Scott Brown took the seat long held by pro-labor lion Ted Kennedy.

Smith is a former deputy attorney general who was picked by Eliot Spitzer in 2007 as New York’s labor commissioner. She stepped into an agency that had long served as a substation for patronage and hacks. One of ex-governor George Pataki’s commissioners, James McGowan, wound up convicted of on-the-job bribery. A top labor aide assigned to handle apprentice programs instead looted funds intended for job training.

This was pretty dismal stuff for an agency once led by the mighty Frances Perkins, the feisty FDR ally who became the first female cabinet member and whose own passion for labor justice was galvanized after she watched 146 workers tumble to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.

Smith set about trying to recapture that mission, and one of her ideas was that since the state lacked the manpower to investigate every workplace, it could designate citizen groups to act as watchdogs. This “Wage Watch” campaign was funded with all of $6,000 and enlisted a half-dozen groups, including two unions, to scout out problems. The watchdogs would help both workers and employers know the laws, and pass on complaints to labor officials.

“Just as no one wants to live in an area riddled with crime, nobody wants to live in a neighborhood where workers are paid sweatshop wages,” said Smith in January 2009 when she announced the program.

When she appeared before the Senate’s labor committee back in March, Smith was quizzed by Mike Enzi, a GOP senator from Wyoming, a state with the nation’s smallest number of wage earners and where local laws proudly tilt in employers’ favor. Smith told the senator that her program had been “internally crafted” and that her office sought ideas from outside groups only after the plan was hatched.

This soon provided a small but genuine “gotcha” moment for the Right. Enzi obtained e-mails from Smith’s state office that showed significant back-and-forth discussions with advocates and union organizers about how the program could be shaped. Smith later admitted her mistake. But Enzi proclaimed the entire effort a smoke screen to grant “vigilante power” to unions and community groups like the dreaded Acorn (which wasn’t even part of the program). He demanded that Smith’s nomination be withdrawn, although his outrage suggested something more along the lines of the way cattle rustlers were once dispatched in his home state.

Despite all the hand-wringing these days over the many failings of the Obama administration, the fight over the Smith nomination offers a neat glimpse into some of the actual battle lines in Washington: one side pushing to make government respond to inequity, the other with its shoulders firmly planted against the door. Before Patricia Smith’s nomination, not too many people outside the field of labor law even knew there was such a thing as a Solicitor of Labor. Guys like Enzi did, though, and they understood why it matters.

One of the reasons is that surveys show that labor law violations have spiraled in recent years, as more and more employers are shortchanging their workers. Last month, the National Employment Law Project reported that one out of five workers in New York City’s low-wage industries is being paid less than the legally required wage. It’s not a mistake, said report co-author Annette Bernhardt, it’s “an accepted business strategy.”

Some of the evidence of this was on display last Wednesday evening, as a group called the Retail Action Project staged a noisy demonstration, complete with marching band and songs, along the bustling strip of Lower Broadway above Canal Street. The project includes members of a local community group, the Good Old Lower East Side, along with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. The RWDSU was one of the partners in Smith’s “Wage Watch” program that set off alarm bells among Republicans. A couple of years ago, the project helped win $1.4 million in back wages for some 1,000 people who had worked at the Soho retail chain Yellow Rat Bastard.

“For decades, the retail sector has been a free-fire zone of worker abuse,” said RWDSU president Stu Appelbaum, who trudged along the demonstration route, briefcase in hand.

The current targets include the chains Shoe Mania, Mystique, and a successful and upscale boutique chain known as Scoop NYC. Lawsuits alleging labor violations are pending against the chains. Among the marchers was Hassami Cisse, 32, who worked at Scoop for five years during which he averaged 58 hours a week on the job. He unpacked boxes, steamed and folded clothes, and did general cleaning.

Cisse’s story is classic New York immigrant, not very different from those who formed the city’s retail unions early in the last century: A native of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, he came to the U.S. in 2003 after his life was threatened for joining student protests there. He was hired at Scoop with the help of a fellow countryman already working at the store. His pay, he said, was a flat weekly check based on minimum wage regardless of how many hours of overtime he worked.

“I stayed because I have a family to feed,” said Cisse, who lives doubled up in a Bronx apartment near Yankee Stadium. He said his requests for raises were rebuffed, as was a more modest plea that his hours be adjusted so that he could go to school to become a nurse. “This is after three years I was there. I was like, ‘OK, I want to go to school now and get an education.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to increase my pay, just give me time to allow me to go to school.’ Their answer is no: ‘Either you choose to go to school, or you quit. You cannot do both.’ “

One of the things Cisse said he noticed at Scoop was that immigrants like himself did the stock and security work, while the company hired young Americans, most of them white females, to serve as salespeople on the floor. “They were like college girls,” he said. “They were getting hourly pay, but also commissions, which we couldn’t get.”

Store workers understood this divide. “One of the things that really touched me,” Cisse said, “was when some of the Caucasian girls who worked on the floor came to us downstairs in the basement and said they are feeling very bad for the way the company is treating us compared to them. They said, ‘The situation is not right, because we are getting paid hourly and commissions. You have no health insurance, no commissions.’ They said they wished we could get something better. That really touched me. They were very sincere.”

A short while later, however, Cisse and several other stock workers were fired after store owners said they were worried about a pending immigration inspection. “I was terminated,” said Cisse. “This is even though I had a green card, Social Security, and everything else. They had my paperwork right there in the office.”

Scoop attorneys didn’t return calls. The boutique’s ownership is fairly prestigious: Last year, it was bought by the Yucaipa investment firm, headed by Bill Clinton pal Ron Burkle. Yucaipa officials had no comment, but they are said to be working on a settlement of the workers’ lawsuit.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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