Wage Theft Skewered at Labor Day Picnic; Workers’ Center Becomes 11th Workers’ Center, Nationally, to Affiliate with AFL-CIO

from the Ithaca Journal: ITHACA — Employees were toasted and their employers roasted along with about 1,000 hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages at the annual Labor Day picnic in Stewart Park Monday.


A couple hundred people from all walks of life gathered near the main pavilion to partake in politics and potato salad as part of a tradition that goes back 25 years and is organized by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center and the Midstate Central Labor Council.

Long-time Ithaca resident Barbara Wayman was a rare specimen, a Republican in a sea of Democrats, but she said she could agree with most of what was said and found a community picnic an apt venue. “There are a lot of people out of work who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Wayman said.

Among those recognized were two workers who blew the whistle on their employers. Viola Scott successfully took on a downtown retailer who paid her below the minimum wage, and received $1,200 in back payments. Thomas Lackner lost an estimated $250,000 in unpaid overtime in 16 years at a Lansing restaurant, and is consulting with the Department of Labor to recover about $40,000, picnic coordinator Pete Meyers said.

SUNY Cortland economics professor Howard Botwinick said such practices are common among local employers, some of whom also skirt labor laws by deeming their employees independent contractors.

“Wage theft is not just taking place in the darkest corners of our communities by employers unscrupulously breaking the law,” Botwinick said. “It’s a generic problem and it’s time for us to get back to the basics.”

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, said labor achieved victory in getting the Employee Free Choice Act through the U.S. House, but said unions were spending too much energy on politics and should return to their roots. “You need to organize harder, you need to organize smarter. You have to do the work to build a labor movement again,” Bronfenbrenner said.

Edie Reagan, coordinator of Justice and Peace and Catholic Charities, got the Friend of Labor award for work as a founding member of the Religious Task Force for a Living Wage, while Ithaca College was named the Goat of Labor.

Dave Marsh, business manager of Laborers Local Union 785, said the college had let labor down by outsourcing work on its $64.5 million athletics and events center to a Rochester-based contractor that uses out-of-state workers. “At a time when we have 10 percent unemployment, it would be nice for these jobs to stay local,” he said.

In a statement on the college’s Intercom site, Carl Sgrecci, vice president for finance and administration, defended the decision.

“Ithaca College has every confidence in Pike Construction. When considering bids on the A&E Center project, our due diligence showed that they treat labor fairly and use substantial numbers of local and union workers,” Sgrecci wrote. “The College has a responsibility to use funds being spent on the project — whether they come from donors or the operating budget — in a fiscally prudent manner.”