Photo by Gilberto Tadday
February 19, 2008
From City Limits:
Will the organizing model that won back wages and overtime for shop
employees have staying power?
Frigid weather didn't stop employees of the Soho retail clothing store
Yellow Rat Bastard from celebrating the $1.4 million in back wages they
just won in a settlement by rallying outside the shop and marching up
Broadway last week.
Months of organizing by the Retail Action Project (RAP) finally paid off
with an announcement by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo last Monday that
Henry Ishay – who owns Yellow Rat Bastard along with other trendy clothing
stores in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn – would compensate for paying
employees below the state minimum wage, failing to provide overtime, and
illegally reducing hours and firing those who cooperated with the attorney
general's investigation. In addition to the wage settlement, RAP – which
brought workers together and offered training and support – also helped
workers acquire layoff protection in three of Ishay's stores and focus
attention on what many workers have described as unhealthy, unsafe working
With this victory achieved for more than a thousand current and former
workers, some wonder what's ahead for this group and others like it. Like
most of New York City's retail workers, employees at YRB and Ishay's other
stores are not unionized, and therefore not protected by a collective
bargaining agreement. RAP is not a union, but rather a grassroots advocacy
organization fighting alongside workers to protect their rights.
"With retail jobs, the pay is so low that workers often quit and go on to
the next store rather than try to take on all these problems," said RAP
organizer Carrie Gleason. "Our goal is to make it easier for these workers
to deal with problems, because they may encounter them all over again at
the next store they go to."
"I think this shows how incredibly hard it is for many workers to
unionize, but how great the need is," Gleason said. She points to other
worker advocacy groups like Make the Road by Walking and Despierta
Bushwick as models for how to make improvements for non-unionized,
immigrant workers who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Such
groups "give workers the back-up they need on the job regardless of their
collective bargaining status. At the same time, workers build networks and
get experience in how to deal with problems collectively. It's a stepping
stone to unionizing."
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in fact, helped create
RAP, along with the neighborhood advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side.
Profiles on MySpace and Facebook – which were actually suggested by some
of the workers, a youthful group overall – gave the effort a boost too,
Labor relations experts agree that this is a promising model, but question
whether it's replicable.
"These workers' success shows that you can protect workers a number of
ways," said Ken Margolies, an organizing expert at the NYC extension of
Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "The
question is whether this can be effective with companies bigger than local
retailers, and with non-retailers. Would it work against Starbucks? I
don't know if enough pressure could be generated. Starbucks has a lot more
resources to resist and do a counter-information campaign."
Margolies thinks that collective bargaining is an essential, irreplaceable
tool. "There's only so many times you can do the pressure tactic before
you wear people out or the other side learns how to beat it. The advantage
of collective bargaining is that you get legal recognition, which means
the employer has to bargain with you and you reduce your agreements to a
legal and binding contract," he said. "So when the worker advocacy group
stops watching, the employer can't change his or her mind and and revert
For many of the workers, the experience has been eye-opening. "When I
first got involved with the Retail Action Project, I thought it was just
Yellow Rat Bastard violating workers' rights. But when I got a second job
at another store in SoHo, I found out they were paying less than minimum
wage too," said Guatemalan native Loren Orellana, 24, an employee at the
Ishay store Boys and Chicks.
"Working for YRB, I earned just $5.50 per hour ... and worked as many as
60 hours a week without overtime pay," said Edwin Dyer, 25, who worked at
Boys and Chicks for two years. "YRB thought they could get away with
cheating us out of money. They thought we would never exercise our rights
because so many of us are young and are immigrants," said Dyer, who is
The lawsuit covered employees of the stores between Dec. 2000 and Dec.
2006, during which time the state minimum wage rose from $5.15 to $6 per
hour on Jan. 1, 2005, and then to $6.75 on Jan. 1, 2006. (On Jan. 1 2007,
it rose again to $7.15.)
Scott Fenstermaker, Ishay's lawyer, described his client as happy with the
settlement amount. "They were asking for significantly more money, and we
were able to describe to them why a more reasonable settlement was in
order. Much of what they were saying was untrue. A lot of them were
basically taking advantage of the company in ways that brought their
credibility into question," Fenstermaker said. He was not clear on what
role RAP played in the settlement.
RAP is currently helping guide workers through the AG's claims process.
Employees working at any of Ishay's stores in the last six years will
complete a notarized form, which the AG's office will use to allocate the
$1.4 million settlement.