Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City and a contributing editor to The Nation, where she also writes the advice column “Asking for a Friend”. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., and Rolling Stone among many other outlets. She is the co-author of Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement (Verso, 2002) and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic, 2004). She is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, which is forthcoming from Verso Books this spring and can be pre-ordered here.
Ever wonder why you can still get a manicure for $5 in parts of New York City? Or why waiters here are mostly white, while all the busboys are immigrants? All this is explained in a disturbing report just released by the Brennan Center for Justice, which shows that abusive is becoming the new normal in the urban workplace. The authors of Unregulated Work in the Global City: Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City, studied 13 industries over three years, and found that violations of wage and hour, health and safety, discrimination and workers' compensation laws, as well as of the right to organize, were commonplace, and generally went unpunished. (The authors are currently studying unregulated work in other cities, and are finding that the problem is a national one, so don't dismiss this as an New York-centric story!)
Consumer patterns play a part; we all expect more convenience, services and goods, even when we don't make much money. Just yesterday, I discovered that I could get a massage for $10.50 even in Manhattan (the Brennan Center reports that massage therapists in this low-priced segment can make as little as $275 a week, and employers routinely fail to protect them from customer harassment). Some businesses -- discount stores, nail salons -- keep prices low to serve poor consumers (whose work may also be largely unregulated) but to do that, must miserably exploit their workers, not even paying minimum wage, much less overtime.
Yet consumer poverty can't explain everything, because high end restaurants are no picnic for workers, either (in fact, they seem to to be worse than fast food and other chain and franchise restaurants). In the city's restaurant industry, illegal discrimination based on race and ethnicity is so common it goes almost unnoticed. So are violations of minimum wage: $5 an hour is about average, and it's not unusual for coat checkers and delivery guys to make as little as $3 an hour.
On some West Coast college campuses this week, students and workers have been outspoken. Tuesday afternoon the Stanford students occupying their presidents office were arrested, as expected. The next day, at UC Davis, fifteen people -- food service workers, students and others -- were arrested while demanding that the university stop subcontracting the university's food services, and allow the workers to join the union. Subcontracting to notorious unionbuster Sodexho Marriott saves the university money but results in shoddy conditions for the workers. Earlier this month, 24 people were arrested in a demonstration on the same issue. It's the end of the school year, and the administrations will probably try to get away with making some nefarious decisions over the summer, while the students are gone. Let's hope this spring's organizing has laid the groundwork for a highly organized fall 2007.
This morning, eleven Stanford University students began occupying the lobby of their president's office demanding humane conditions for the workers who make clothes and hats bearing their school logo. Specifically, the student activists are asking President John Hennessy to take a constructive role in fighting sweatshops by joining the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) by the end of today (if you're reading this on the East Coast, note that he still has a few hours). The WRC was founded by students and labor rights seven years ago as an alternative to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a far more industry-influenced monitoring group; the WRC, which has 169 collegiate members, has succeeded in improving conditions for some workers, and many observers agree that the competition has improved the FLA. "We know President Hennessy has the moral integrity to take this step," said Bethany Woolman, a sophomore who was occupying the presidential lobby. "But we know he needs the support of students to do it."
Today Starbucks faced legal and political trouble from its own workers. On the third anniversary of the founding of the IWW Starbucks Union, baristas in Chicago marched into a shop and told the manager they were signing up. (Starbucks workers have chosen to organize without government-mediated elections, through an interesting model called "solidarity unionism.") Meanwhile, baristas in Grand Rapids, Michigan announced that they were filing a legal complaint against the company for violating their organizing rights through unlawful surveillance and other questionable tactics. All over the world -- Austria, England, Spain and Australia, as well as the United States -- Starbucks workers demonstrated in front of stores to protest the company's union-busting practices.
Last week your humble correspondent learned, over a dry repast of catered chicken with some of our nation's most influential men, that unlike Canada and many other civilized democracies, we cannot have single-payer health care because Dennis Kucinich is short. I wonder what these luminaries would say about a new report from Save the Children showing that the United States compares poorly to other developed countries on an equally basic measure.
So much City Council legislation -- whether in New York or other cities -- is essentially performance art, even if its intentions are progressive. You know the genre -- banning the N-word, declaring a "hate-free" or "nuclear-free" zone, or that such and such city -- or small town in Vermont -- is against the war in Iraq. Stuff that makes people feel good, maybe helps raise some "awareness," but doesn't change anyone's life significantly, or even reshape reality in any way. That's why it's refreshing to see New York City Council members Eric Goia and Rosie Mendez introduce the "Responsible Restaurant Act," which will improve compliance with minimum wage and other labor laws in the city's restaurant industry. Better enforcement will also help restaurants who do obey the law remain in business -- by making life more difficult for those who are trying to maintain a competitive advantage by stiffing their workers.
I'm amused that none of my Notion colleagues have commented on the Washington, D.C. sex scandal. Time to break this high-minded code of delicacy. Alleged madam Deborah Jane Palfrey is about to release her client list, and ABC News plans to release her phone records on Friday. To those who think they are are above reveling in something so sordid: hold your high horses. I feel sorry for people whose names are dragged through the mud over personal behavior -- but not if they are right-wing hypocrites who have supported policies interfering with other people's private lives. A couple names have been leaked already, and we shouldn't feel bad for any of them.