En Español Know Your Rights
Source: City Limits
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Retail Workers Celebrate Million-Dollar Victory

Frigid
weather didn’t stop employees of the Soho
retail clothing store Yellow Rat Bastard from celebrating the $1.4 million in
back wages they just won in a settlement by rallying outside the shop and
marching up Broadway last week.

Months of
organizing by the Retail Action Project (RAP) finally paid off with an
announcement by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo last Monday that Henry Ishay –
who owns Yellow Rat Bastard along with other trendy clothing stores in
Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn – would compensate for paying employees below
the state minimum wage, failing to provide overtime, and illegally reducing
hours and firing those who cooperated with the attorney general’s
investigation. In addition to the wage settlement, RAP – which brought workers
together and offered training and support – also helped workers acquire layoff
protection in three of Ishay’s stores and focus attention on what many workers
have described as unhealthy, unsafe working conditions.

With this
victory achieved for more than a thousand current and former workers, some
wonder what’s ahead for this group and others like it. Like most of New York City’s retail
workers, employees at YRB and Ishay’s other stores are not unionized, and
therefore not protected by a collective bargaining agreement. RAP is not a
union, but rather a grassroots advocacy organization fighting alongside workers
to protect their rights.

"With retail
jobs, the pay is so low that workers often quit and go on to the next store
rather than try to take on all these problems," said RAP organizer Carrie
Gleason. "Our goal is to make it easier for these workers to deal with
problems, because they may encounter them all over again at the next store they
go to."

"I think
this shows how incredibly hard it is for many workers to unionize, but how
great the need is," Gleason said. She points to other worker advocacy groups
like Make the Road by Walking and Despierta
Bushwick**
as models
for how to make improvements for non-unionized, immigrant workers who are
particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Such groups "give workers the
back-up they need on the job regardless of their collective bargaining status.
At the same time, workers build networks and get experience in how to deal with
problems collectively. It’s a stepping stone to unionizing."

The Retail,
Wholesale and Department Store Union, in fact, helped create RAP, along with
the neighborhood advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side. Profiles on MySpace
and Facebook – which were actually suggested by some of the workers, a youthful
group overall – gave the effort a boost too, she noted.

Labor
relations experts agree that this is a promising model, but question whether
it’s replicable.

"These
workers’ success shows that you can protect workers a number of ways," said Ken
Margolies, an organizing expert at the NYC extension of Cornell
University’s School of Industrial
and Labor Relations. "The question is whether this can be effective with
companies bigger than local retailers, and with non-retailers. Would it work
against Starbucks? I don’t know if enough pressure could be generated. Starbucks
has a lot more resources to resist and do a counter-information campaign."

Margolies
thinks that collective bargaining is an essential, irreplaceable tool. "There’s
only so many times you can do the pressure tactic before you wear people out or
the other side learns how to beat it. The advantage of collective bargaining is
that you get legal recognition, which means the employer has to bargain with
you and you reduce your agreements to a legal and binding contract," he
said. "So when the worker advocacy group stops watching, the employer
can’t change his or her mind and and revert back."

For many of
the workers, the experience has been eye-opening. "When I first got involved
with the Retail Action Project, I thought it was just Yellow Rat Bastard
violating workers’ rights. But when I got a second job at another store in
SoHo, I found out they were paying less than minimum wage too," said Guatemalan
native Loren Orellana, 24, an employee at the Ishay store Boys and Chicks.

"Working for
YRB, I earned just $5.50 per hour … and worked as many as 60 hours a week
without overtime pay," said Edwin Dyer, 25, who worked at Boys and Chicks for
two years. "YRB thought they could get away with cheating us out of money. They
thought we would never exercise our rights because so many of us are young and
are immigrants," said Dyer, who is from Trinidad.

The lawsuit
covered employees of the stores between Dec. 2000 and Dec. 2006, during which
time the state minimum wage rose from $5.15 to $6 per hour on Jan. 1, 2005, and
then to $6.75 on Jan. 1, 2006. (On Jan. 1 2007, it rose again to $7.15.)

Scott
Fenstermaker, Ishay’s lawyer, described his client as happy with the settlement
amount. "They were asking for significantly more money, and we were able to
describe to them why a more reasonable settlement was in order. Much of what
they were saying was untrue. A lot of them were basically taking advantage of
the company in ways that brought their credibility into question," Fenstermaker
said. He was not clear on what role RAP played in the settlement.

RAP is
currently helping guide workers through the AG’s claims process. Employees
working at any of Ishay’s stores in the last six years will complete a
notarized form, which the AG’s office will use to allocate the $1.4 million
settlement.

** Make the Road New York’s workplace
justice campaign