NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A local organization is turning up the heat on employers who don't pay their workers, or fail to meet federal minimum wage and overtime standards.
New Labor was founded in 2000 as "an alternative model of worker organization that combines new and existing strategies to improve working conditions and provide a voice for immigrant workers throughout New Jersey."
Since then, the group has been doing everything it can to help New Brunswick's workforce from offering classes in English to protesting employers who fail to pay their workers. In recent months, they have been attending New Brunswick City Council meetings en masse, pressing the local government to strengthen protections for workers.
In the most prominent example of New Labor's activism, community members have descended on a French Street gas station several times over the last month, putting a dent in its business.
On November 5, community members rallied for Armando Rodriguez Vera, a former 7-day-a-week worker at the BP gas station who was fired for reporting a violation of state law. Vera worked from 10pm-6am every day, but was never paid overtime.
According to New Labor, Vera's claim with the Department of Labor totals between $6,000 and $7,000.
Organizers say that the organization has helped to recover an average of $100,000 per year in stolen wages through direct action and claims to the DOL.
"The bigger ones… are long-term overtime violations or minimum wage violations."
A flyer passed out at the boycott details the circumstances of his firing:
When his wife needed surgery after losing her vision, BP didn’t allow him to take a day off to care for her. Then, when Armando contacted the NJ Department of Labor to stand up for his rights, BP fired him. His boss, Halin Carraca, told him “you’re a good worker, I like your work, but what I didn’t like was your claim with the Department of Labor.”
Please tell BP to pay their workers their fair share and to rehire Armando Rodriguez Vera. Let BP know that you won’t buy their gas until Armando is paid and given back his job.
Halin Carraca, owner (ph) 732-247-4250 / 973-572-4505
Very few cars, if any, bought gas during the initial two-hour protest, a tremendous victory for the movement, which drew a diverse and determined cadre of activists and local leaders. But the campaign against wage theft has been building steam for months, if not years.
MOUNTING CAMPAIGN FOR CITY ORDINANCE AGAINST WAGE THEFT
New Labor has been working with Unity Square, another local group, to put pressure on the city council to become the first municipality in New Jersey to pass an official ordinance specifically targeting wage theft. They have submitted over 1,000 signatures to the council and the council seems poised to grant their wish.
Currently, victims of wage theft depend on the Department of Labor to approve their claims and county sheriffs' to enforce the judgments.
But New Labor organizers say the workers would be in a stronger position if city law were clarified to make the approval of business licenses explicitly dependent upon the owner's reputation for paying workers appropriately. That's what an ordinance could do.
On July 17, several New Labor members attended to show their support for three workers who told their personal stories about wage theft in the city and urged the City Council to pursue this issue.
One of the New Labor members had worked for a company in New Brunswick for 12 years, during of which she was not paid her rightful dues.
"It's a problem in our community. Wage theft in terms of not being paid time and half or over time and not being paid all of your hours of work, including vacation time."
"Before I worked at a company called Latin Brothers. I worked there for twelve years. They never paid me any benefits or vacation, and I work seven days a week, between fifty to sixty hours a week. And I’m here to ask you to listen to our voices in the community.”
Not only was she not receiving her money, but the owner fired her without explanation, sending her home and not calling back.
It was then she went to New Labor for help. The organization helped her file a claim with the NJ Department of Labor (DOL) and she was able to recover $7,000 dollars in unpaid wages for the last two of years of her work.
"We fight for everyone," said Craig Garcia, an organizer with New Labor. "It's a philosophical thing for us. We try to put the workers first. It's really about empowering them."
The organization's strategy evokes the organizers' preference that workers "do the talking" in their own disputes.
Wage theft is a global issue affecting all different types of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, ranging from college students working part-time to immigrant workers working low-wage jobs.
In states like New Jersey, immigrant workers tend to be consistent target of wage theft with examples involving large scale businesses like Wal-Mart, who contract out their work to local temporary agencies.
On a more local level, many immigrant workers in New Brunswick are victims of wage theft – the illegal retention of wages or denial of benefits rightfully owed to an employee.
New Labor deals with several cases of wage theft on a daily basis. When asked about how much wage theft occurs in New Brunswick, both Nelson and Garcia replied at the same time, "A ton! A ton!,"
"Here, we are scratching the surface," said Garcia.
Wage theft is generally protected by several laws like the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938, down to numerous state and city ordinances.
"The bulk of our memberships are Latino immigrants and we’re guided by the principles of working together, creating opportunities, respect, empowerment, and equality," says Nelson, "So how that translates into our daily work is addressing problems on the job, problems in the community, and all the decisions are made in a democratic way."
Even though the majority of their members are Latino, the immigrant community is not the only ones who are suffering from wage theft on a local level.
"It's not a Latino issue, it's not an immigrant issue," says Nelson. "It's affecting low wage workers in general; however, we've seen more abuses where there is a higher concentration of temp agencies or where there is a higher concentration of day laborers, anywhere where there are low wage jobs, and there've been several reports on a national level about wage theft affecting low wage industries."
NEW BRUNSWICK AMONG NATION'S BIGGEST "TEMP TOWNS"
New Labor has been working with local communities in Newark and Lakewood as well.
In Lakewood, the organization is dominated by domestic workers, or housekeepers, most of them female. By contrast, the Newark branch is predominantly made up of mostly-male construction workers.
But in New Brunswick, the group is much more diverse and staff members say they get walk-ins at their downtown office every day.
While the group includes day laborers, landscapers, restaurant workers, and cleaning service employees, the prevalence of temporary agency workers is what makes New Brunswick unique.
According to a report on ProPublica, New Brunswick is a "temp town," with an above average concentration of temporary workers:
In New Jersey, white vans zip through an old Hungarian neighborhood in New Brunswick, picking up workers at temp agencies along French Street. In Joliet, Illinois, one temp agency operated out of a motel meeting room once a week, supplying labor to the layers of logistics contractors at one of Walmart’s biggest warehouses…
In temp towns, it is not uncommon to find warehouses with virtually no employees of their own. Many temp workers say they have worked in the same factory day in and day out for years…
Latinos make up about 20 percent of all temp workers. In many temp towns, agencies have flocked to neighborhoods full of undocumented immigrants, finding labor that is kept cheap in part by these workers’ legal vulnerability: They cannot complain without risking deportation…
Workers describe the vans as dangerously overcrowded with as many as 22 people stuffed into a fifteen-passenger van. In New Jersey, one worker drew a diagram of how his temp agency fit seventeen people into a minivan, using wooden benches and baby seats and having three workers crouch in the trunk space.
“They push and push us in until we get like cigarettes in a box,” said one Illinois worker. “Sometimes I say, ‘Hey, you are not driving goats!’”
Temporary Agency workers are often victims of wage theft, with numerous companies replacing full time workers with temps as a measure to cut back on expenses.
Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show Middlesex County as having the fourth highest concentration of temporary workers in the nation at 6.4%.
Passaic County and Burlington County also make the national top 10 list with 5.2% and 4.4%, respectively.
Since agency workers are temporary, large companies use their “expendability” as an excuse for taking advantage of them. For example, most temp workers usually do not have means of transportations from their homes to their jobs, so they become contractually obligated to use van services in order to work.
In some parts of the country, these transportation vans are primarily contracted out by temp agencies, and drivers usually get paid straight from the wages of the temp workers themselves.
Vincente Ramos, a New Brunswick resident and temp agency employee, told ProPublica that jobs were not even guaranteed with the van services, since the driver essentially decides who gets to work or not. And even if they did not work, the temp laborers still had to pay for the transportation services.
Several workers told ProPublica that the temp agency had left them stranded at times. Ramos, a father of six, recalled a time when he and other workers walked for three hours one night after the van failed to show up.
“We were getting hungry and thirsty, and we could barely walk, and our feet were hurting,” Ramos told ProPublica. “They still charged us for the ride.”
"THE HEART OF OUR ORGANIZATION"
New Labor’s ideology is based upon five core values, which they list as Working Together, Creating Opportunities, Respect, Empowerment, and Equality.
"Your typical union… represents workers," said Garcia. "We're interested in empowering workers."
Along with helping victims of wage theft recover their money, New Labor stands out amongst other organizations in it that they offer their members classes in English as a Second Lanuguage (ESL) and occupational safety.
"And now we’re going to be working with workers who are doing post Sandy reconstruction and clean up.”
One of their major involvements has been helping with the Hurricane Sandy state wide clean up, making sure to help workers taken to the shore to help with restoration, in terms of understanding their rights and proper health and safety procedure.
"A lot of workers are picked up from New Brunswick taken to Seaside, Point Pleasant, to do reconstruction work but they’re not giving gloves, respirators, things that they need to protect their health on the job. And sometimes they don’t know the information about the actual materials that they are handling," said organizer Brian Nelson.
"So we were able to receive personal protective equipment and pamphlets and information for workers and distribute them at various muster zones, where workers are gathering to be picked up by contractors, and we did that across the state, and we're continuing to do that."
New Labor is also unique in that they have a special bi-monthly meeting, called a “consejo”, which is open to the public and gives members decision making power over the direction of the organization.
Garcia said anyone is welcome at the consejo, but only members can vote.
Garcia said, "The consejo is the heart of our organization. It’s where a lot of our actions are done. We really don’t do much without passing it by our members at first, and see what they think in coming to a decision on things. Our executive board is also made up of community workers too so the president of our organization is a low wage worker.”
The decision to hold mass protests in honor of Vera, the fired BP worker, was decided upon at consejo, according to Garcia.
"The whole plan was developed as a group," said Garcia "The very fact that we are continuing with the boycott is the result of" discussions at the consejo.
The next protest at BP gas station at French and Bethany Streets is scheduled for Friday November 15 from 4:30pm to 6:30pm.
The next consejo is scheduled for the group' second-floor office at 103 Bayard Street, immediately following the November 20 City Council meeting, where the council has promised to introduce a wage theft ordinance. The council meeting starts at 6:30pm on the top floor of City Hall.
Anyone who feels that they are a victim of wage theft is encouraged to contact New Labor at 732-246-2900. The organization will investigate and help victims file claims with the state and in some cases use direct action against the employers.
Garcia said New Labor encourages workers to stand up for their rights, and is always willing to support the victims. "We push them and emphasize to them that they should be the ones to talk. Most of the time we want the worker to come forward and… do the talking."
"We're right behind and if there's any issues, we'll help fill in the blanks," said Garcia. "We don't want to be out there making claims for them."