One hundred seventy-five workers won $410,000 in back pay at the Danmar Finishing clothing factory, located at 456 Johnson Ave in Brooklyn. The owners had been in the habit of stealing their overtime pay for many years. Under labor law all hours worked over 40 in one week must be paid at time-and-a half.
"We were not fighting for the money. We were fighting for justice. The owners told us we had no right to speak up because we didn’t have papers. They would insult us," said Blanca, one of the former Danmar employees, at a press conference in front of the factory December 18th.
"I am happy because we won this victory. We are sending a message that the law must be respected. What we want is that every worker be treated with respect and equality," said Maria Arriaga, a worker for over ten years at Danmar, who had been the first to raise her voice in protest at the stealing of their pay. In retaliation the owners harassed her, she said, and eventually fired her and 13 others who joined in the struggle.
Cristina, one of the 13, said, "I am happy because the truth has finally come out, and the truth is I was exploited for many years here in this factory, and I call on workers to have no fear of speaking the truth. We believe we all deserve a fair wage, and not just us but also all of those still inside the factory."
Nieves Padilla, the organizer of Workers in Action, the project of Make the Road by Walking which supported the workers, explained, "We started this campaign against Danmar over 3 years ago. It took us 18 months to get the Department of Labor (DOL) to take this case. That was our first victory, which we won through our protests and with the help of Congresswoman Nidia Velazquez. It was a long and difficult campaign but we had truth on our side and it finally came out. S se puede!"
Hidelfonso, another of the 13, added, "I am happy that the truth came out. And the message goes out to all the companies that don’t pay the overtime. Don’t ever be afraid, and always speak the truth!"
"I thank the organization Make the Road by Walking, because we could not have won alone. This victory is for everyone. Respect, justice and equality is for all; this is what we have learned in our organization, where we pursue the exploiters," said Ms. Arriaga.
After the press conference the press tried to enter the factory to get comments from the owners but were refused entry.
Ms. Padilla wanted all the 175 workers to know that another victory was that the DOL declared this case has nothing to do with immigration, and that the workers could come forward to claim their back pay with no fear. Ms. Padilla urged workers who have not done so to contact the DOL or Make the Road, at (718) 418-7690 ext 208.
She stated that another result of the Danmar struggle is that the DOL now pays attention to cases brought to them by Workers in Action. But she added, "What we want is that the DOL attend to every worker and not just our members."
While Workers in Action has won back pay for workers in many cases, Danmar was their largest monetary victory to date. Another ongoing campaign is the one at the Minimax department store, on Bushwick’s Knickerbocker Ave shopping strip. There, six women workers have come forward to sue the store for years of unpaid overtime and minimum wage, stating that they worked as much as 80 hours a week at times, never received overtime pay, and were fired after years of work for something as minor as missing work to attend to a sick child. As in all of their fights, the workers stated, they are not relying only on the courts. They have been urging the community to boycott Minimax until justice is done, and have had a number of noisy rallies in front of the store at peak shopping times.
The workers said that while they are confident they will win their back wages in court, they want more. They want a higher starting wage, an end to verbal abuse and harassment by managers, a fair disciplinary policy, the right to miss work due to illness without being fired, coffee breaks, and other improvements in conditions for all Minimax workers. Even though they themselves will not benefit directly from these gains, they say they want to make a change for all the workers. And these are things they feel they can win through direct pressure on the employers.
Such organizational campaigns also serve to reach out to other workers in the community, to educate them about their rights, and to show them by example that they too can organize and fight back. "I believe the best pressure on the bosses is when it is organizational. For example, one member had been owed back wages by Great American Sweater, who had made clothing for the Kathy Ireland line at K-Mart. The lawyers had spent nearly a year going back and forth, with no resolution. When we showed up at their showroom offices with a delegation of our members, the next day there were calling to settle and pay up. Had they not, our next step was to have been a protest at K-Mart on 34th St, and a march to Great American Sweater, " said Ms. Padilla.
Sometimes, all that has been necessary for victory has been a letter from the group, stating the worker’s grievance, presented by a delegation of workers. Other times, protests have been necessary, and sometimes a lawsuit. Another way Workers in Action has intervened on workers’ behalf has been to help them pressure their union to deal with their grievances, for example, by the workers making their union representative meet with them at the offices of Workers in Action, with their own lawyer present. They are also involved at this time with other organizations in a campaign to raise the NY minimum wage, and are planning a campaign to try to get enforcement of the criminal penalties for non-payment of wages under NY State law. The workers at the press conference were in agreement that Danmar was a case where the bosses really deserved criminal penalties. Hopefully, the members of Workers in Action will find a way to get that law enforced in such cases. "Si se puede!"