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.
If you visit New York much, especially outside the major tourist areas, you've probably noticed that the restaurants are one of the city's greatest attractions. But the people who bring you that great dining experience aren't treated very well. As in much of the low-wage, service sector nationwide -- particularly in industries employing a lot of immigrants -- violations of minimum wage, overtime, discrimination and other laws are common in New York's restaurants, according to a studyby the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC, a workers' center) and the New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition. The bill, designed in part by the Brennan Center for Justice, which has authored many of the living wage laws now sweeping the land, would require the city to treat labor violations the same way it treats health code violations -- that is, harshly. Health code violations, if left unaddressed, bring the scarlet letter of humiliating public notices in front of the shop, and can ultimately cost restauranteurs their operating permits. It should be difficult to argue against this reform since it is really about stricter penalties to strengthen existing laws -- if the restaurant owners try to fight it, they will look as if they want to keep violating the law.
The bill is part of a wide range of strategies by restaurant workers in New York City wishing to improve their lives. Another, started by a coalition of restaurant, deli and other service workers, is a campaign with the inspired name Justice Will Be Served! which has been, among other things, picketing employers for -- among many other offenses -- paying employees less than $2 an hour and locking them out when they try to organize.
Meanwhile, yesterday Maryland became the first stateh to enact a living wage law for state contractors.The national movement for paycheck justice continues.