The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Dear Friends,

We thought you might find this message from New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman regarding an historic day in the struggle for human rights and workers’ rights.  In these times when rights are under attack, we join with Attorney General Schneiderman in hoping for the better days … and in the struggle to make sure that they arrive.  In many ways, March 25, 1911, was the beginning of the second American Revolution — the revolution that brought our nation to its position of leadership in the world.

Arthur Z. Schwartz, President, Board of Directors

Chris Owens, Executive Director



March 25, 2011

Dear Chris,

One hundred years ago today a devastating fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The fire spread with shocking speed through the overcrowded and poorly ventilated building and 146 workers, mostly young women, lost their lives. A century later, this tragedy stands as a reminder that legal protections and workplace safety standards were won through a long struggle for social justice and at great human cost.

As I wrote in today’s Daily News, the lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire have been lost on many of my colleagues in government. Over the last decade, progress has slowed and, in many states, workers' rights have been seriously weakened. In Wisconsin, we are seeing a radical assault on employee protections, which 10 years ago would have seemed unimaginable in its scope.

And right here in New York, farmworkers and other low wage workers are struggling in conditions not much safer or fairer than the sweatshops of 1911.

As Attorney General, my most important responsibility is keeping New Yorkers safe by enforcing the laws that protect our people from harm. But another fundamental part of my job is to seek to advance the basic American principle of equal justice under law.

Both of these goals can be achieved by ensuring safe and fair working conditions for all New Yorkers. To truly honor the memories of those who lost their lives a hundred years ago today, we can't afford to wait another century to get it right.


Eric Schneiderman

Notes from the NIOSH Zadroga Meeting at 26 Federal Plaza (3/3/11)

Executive Director Chris Owens here, reporting from 26 Federal Plaza on Thursday, March 3rd. 
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health held a "speak out" session for members of the 9/11 victim community.  The context is the passage of The Zadroga Act (James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010), federal legislation that creates a new victims' compensation fund for individuals harmed on 9/11 and thereafter, including residents within a specified geographic area. 
The goal of the session was to provide NIOSH with more information from the community regarding aspects of Title I of the legislation, including potential gaps and problems with the legislation's provisions regarding health conditions, their evaluation, and their treatment.  Unfortunately, the generation of these guidelines may take another three or more months.
Numerous victims spoke to the NIOSH panelists, sharing heart-rending stories of illnesses and incapacity endured by family members and friends.  A particular concern was the potential exclusion of cancer as a health condition deserving of consideration for compensation.  Our Board member, Mike Kenny, celebrated his 49th birthday today by describing the personal hell he endured after working at the World Trade Center site.  
Mike Kenny is sick through and through.  But he is still here — doing great work with organized labor — and grateful for it.  Many others are not still here.  Even more are sick and either do not understand why or are not able to get help.  Mike, like many others today, spoke eloquently and forcefully about individual pain and the pain of an entire community. 
Several speakers spoke about the lack of outreach to communities beyond Manhattan regarding Zadroga-related developments, including Rev. Terry Lee of Brooklyn.  We at Advocates for Justice certainly hope to help change that.  And both Rev. Lee and attorney Joel Kupferman discussed the reluctance of many immigrants who are also victims to speak out about their situation.  We hope to change this as well.
There will be many challenges surrounding this legislation and its implementation.  The funding is one issue (How much of the fund should be spent on administrative and outreach functions, as opposed to patient care?  Will the Republicans allow any additional funds to be allocated to cover those costs?)  Another issue is the relative ignorance of many medical providers.  They need more comprehensive information and training, and more data is needed to ensure that conditions are linked properly.  This also includes the cancer issue; cancer needs to be covered properly by this legislation. 
And outreach will always be a sensitive issue.  For example, while I was at the session (the morning portion), not a single resident of Chinatown spoke.  I only saw two Asian people in the audience.  On 911, the toxic matter "marched" across the East River through Brooklyn and Staten Island — yet there were very few Brooklynites present and testifying.  We've got work to do.
Many speakers had worked with or were affiliated with The FealGood Foundation, which has done outstanding work in providing support to victims and their families as well as important advocacy.  A staff member was representing U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, one of the Congressmembers who had requested this session (along with Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Peter King), and there was also a staff member from the office of U.S. Senator Kirstin Gillibrand — New York State's junior Senator who earned megapoints by pushing the Zadroga Bill through to its passage.
Do you know someone who has suffered or who is still suffering from 9-11 injuries, physical or psychological?  Now is the time for us to reach out and help people get some of the help they deserve.
(BTW, it's not too late to submit written testimony to NIOSH.  You can post testimony to the electronic NIOSH Docket #226 by clicking here.  We would also like to welcome our newest Advocate for Justice – intern Chantel Rodriguez – who was very helpful during today's meeting.  Ms. Rodriguez will be attending law school next fall.)

Advocates for Justice in action: 2 Brooklyn Grocers Face Class-Action Suits

A Fine Fare and a Key Food in Brooklyn are being sued over charges that they violated minimum wage and overtime laws; attorney sees cases as first of many.

By Daniel Massey, Crain’s NY, March 3, 2011

The suits, filed against a Fine Fare and a Key Food, are part of an ongoing campaign by New York Communities for Change — the successor to Acorn — and United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 338 to improve conditions for low-wage supermarket workers in the city.

Workers at two Brooklyn supermarkets filed class-action lawsuits Thursday, alleging the owners of the shops violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

The suits, filed against a Fine Fare and a Key Food, are part of an ongoing campaign by New York Communities for Change—the successor to Acorn— and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Local 338 to improve conditions for low-wage supermarket workers in the city.

The suit against Fine Fare alleges stock workers earned between $300 and $400 for weeks that ranged from 65 to 78 hours, starting in 2006. It claims they weren’t paid the time and a half required by law for hours in excess of 40, nor were they given bonus pay for days longer than 10 hours. The Key Food complaint makes similar allegations, charging that stock workers earned between $300 and $450 for weeks between 72 and 84 hours, without overtime pay, from 2007 through 2010.

“This is pretty common in a lot of stores in New York City and I see these as the first of many cases we’re going to bring,” said Arthur Schwartz, the workers’ attorney.

Fine Fare owner Mustafa Aba Saab said he has not yet seen the suit. There was no answer at the Key Food store and there was no immediate response to an e-mail sent to Key Food corporate headquarters.

As part of the campaign, Mr. Schwartz sent a letter to the owner of a third shop — Golden Farm in Flatbush — threatening a suit by next week if he did not negotiate over minimum wage and overtime violations against a dozen employees. Workers there are trying to organize a union and Local 338 filed for an election Tuesday.

Sonny Kim, the owner of Golden Farm, said his lawyer has been working for four months to bring the situation to a close, negotiating with the state Department of Labor, which is demanding back wages and penalty payments. “We’re trying to settle,” he said.

Organizers also announced Thursday that a union election would be held Monday at a fourth supermarket — Master Food in Flatbush, where workers say they are fighting for respect on the job.

“I’ve worked there from August 2004 and I have never had a vacation; I’ve gotten sick and had to go to work sick; I’ve worked on holidays and haven’t gotten paid extra; and I never got overtime,” said Jesus Najera, a 31-year-old immigrant from Honduras who plans to vote in favor of the union. “We think that with the union there will be changes for the better at the store.”

Since the campaign launched in December, organizers from Local 338 and New York Communities for Change have met with more than 300 workers. The drive combines the organizing of workers to demand back pay with more traditional efforts seeking union representation. New York Communities for Change has used its roots on the ground in Brooklyn to help activate workers who are often difficult to organize because many are undocumented. Late last year, the group organized a bus caravan that stopped at various supermarkets where workers claimed their rights were being violated.

“By combining the strength of the union and labor laws with a community base, the employer has to realize he can’t just treat these guys poorly or it’s going to blow up in his own backyard,” said Kevin Lynch, director of organizing at Local 338. The community group Make the Road New York employed a similar strategy in a campaign with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union to organize retail workers on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick in 2005.

The supermarket campaign comes as a new state law pushed by Make the Road is set to go into effect next month, increasing penalties on employers who violate wage and hour laws and don’t properly keep records.

Workers will be able to recoup the money they are owed, plus a 100% penalty. The current law allows for just 25% in damages, meaning even if caught, employers typically end up paying little more than they

stole. The act also beefs up protections for workers who are retaliated against for exerting their rights, and gives the state’s commissioner of labor new powers to collect damages from employers who violate the law.

Wage theft costs more than 317,000 low-wage workers in the city $18.4 million per week, according to a 2010 study by the National Employment Law Project. The workers lose almost 15% of their earnings due to labor violations—$58 each per week, or $3,016 every year, according to the group. Minimum wage violations are particularly prevalent in grocery stores, the study showed.