A rare bolt of good news came out of Albany on January 26, when the New York Labor Department announced a new program that partners with labor and community groups to combat workplace violations like wage nonpayment, tip stealing and failure to pay overtime.

New York Wage Watch

will train grassroots organizations to monitor working conditions in their communities and refer violations to the Division of Labor Standards.

Janice Fine

, a labor scholar at Rutgers University and a former organizer, points out that most state-level enforcement is entirely complaint-driven–and since vulnerable workers risk losing their jobs or exposing their immigration status to defy abusive supervisors, most labor law violations go unreported. Now participating groups will “basically be walking a beat,” says Fine. Other states have experimented with similar partnerships, but according to Fine, “no other state is doing anything this proactive.”

A pilot program targeting low-wage industries where abuses are rampant will launch in New York City and Long Island before expanding statewide. The program will “increase labor law compliance by giving regular people a formal role in creating lawful workplaces,” said Labor Department commissioner

M. Patricia Smith

. Among the groups enlisted so far are immigrant worker centers like the

Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association


El Centro del Immigrante

, as well as unions like the

United Food and Commercial Workers

and the

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

. “New York Wage Watch is labor law enforcement at the purest, most grassroots level,” enthused RWDSU president

Stuart Applebaum

. “This program will allow unions, community groups and churches to engage in the fight against the exploitation of workers in our neighborhoods.”   MAX FRASER


Lawmakers are getting credit for passing the

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

, but another bill to fight wage discrimination is coming up short in the Senate. Signed into law by President Obama on January 29, the Ledbetter Act–named after

Lilly Ledbetter

, who lost a Supreme Court case against

Goodyear Tire

–gives victims of wage discrimination more time to file suit. But Ledbetter and women’s groups stress that the law will have minimal impact without the

Paycheck Fairness Act

, which allows victims of wage discrimination to collect information about employees’ salaries without fear of retaliation.

“Giving women the Ledbetter Act without Paycheck Fairness is like giving them the nail without the hammer,” Ledbetter said at a recent conference sponsored by the

American Association of University Women

, which has been pushing for both bills. The Paycheck Fairness Act would also update the

Equal Pay Act

of 1963, which requires employers to show that wage gaps are a result of factors other than gender, to collect better data on wages and to develop training for women on salary negotiations. The House recently passed Paycheck Fairness, and Obama is on record as supporting it. A spring vote in the Senate is possible, but the outcome is iffy. “We’re short on votes, by about a handful,” said

Jim Manley

, spokesman for Senate majority leader

Harry Reid

, a supporter of the bill. “A lot of work has been done on Ledbetter. We need to do a lot more education on Paycheck Fairness.”   DENISE DiSTEPHAN


Against the backdrop of the

struggle over competing stimulus bills and the unsettling collapse of what remains of the economy, scant attention has been paid to the fight over the confirmation of

Barack Obama

‘s nominee to head the Labor Department. California Congresswoman

Hilda Solis,

who perhaps best represents Obama’s outside-the-Beltway base–she is a relatively young woman of color with progressive views–has struggled to gain Senate approval. Solis has been smeared by Republicans as another “tax cheat” along the lines of Treasury Secretary

Timothy Geithner

and former Health and Human Services Secretary-designee

Tom Daschle

, who had to drop out after it was revealed that he failed to pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of limousine rides.

But Solis has no tax troubles; her husband recently paid off roughly $6,000 in county liens on his auto repair business, but those weren’t her debts. More important, only the most irrational partisans could compare the struggles of a small business owner to those of Daschle and Geithner. So what was happening? Solis was attacked because, at a time when a revitalized Labor Department could help tip the balance in favor of working people, Senate Republicans do not want a committed progressive–whose experiences parallel those of struggling families–becoming a leader in the new administration. But the rest of us should.   JOHN NICHOLS


I’m rarely cheerful these days about matters that relate to schooling in America. But the decision by teachers at a


school to join the

United Federation of Teachers

, joining two other KIPP schools where the teachers are already union members, lifted my spirits. As the favorite flavor of school reform these days, KIPP (

Knowledge Is Power Program

) is perhaps the fastest-growing charter school network in the country. The organization of KIPP, which some schools are resisting, suggests that even those teachers attracted to “boot camp” reforms can see that America’s young people shouldn’t be in the hands of Ivy League volunteers who dedicate a few years “in passing” to education. Precisely out of loyalty to their students and to KIPP, some have begun to see teaching as a lifetime commitment that requires teachers’ voices to be heard. A young KIPP teacher told me that he and his colleagues were looking to revise some aspects of the KIPP model as they became more experienced.

The organization of KIPP teachers refutes those who relentlessly and falsely suggest that unionism is a crutch only for weak teachers, or that without collective bargaining we’d easily produce good schooling for one and all. In some fifteen Southern states, teachers are denied the right to collective bargaining–and those states are among the lowest educational performers in the nation. What these KIPP teachers are telling us is that the best schools, regardless of their pedagogical philosophies, are those in which powerful and unafraid adults join the young to create powerful and unafraid schools.   DEBORAH MEIER