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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Empowering the People

No one knows what Neil does here every day.

Every day the man, who looks kind of like Benjamin Franklin, ambles into the Tompkins County Workers’ Center. He’s always wearing big glasses tied to his face with a piece of twine and a faded green padded vest covering a gray T-shirt, but on St. Patrick’s Day he wears a violently green shirt with a tuxedo pattern printed on it.

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From left, junior Samantha Wolfe, Pete Meyers and Jessica Yoon hold a meeting at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center on Tuesday. Wolfe and Yoon work as interns for the center, advocating for workers’ rights. ALLISON USAVAGE/THE ITHACAN

Neil used to test the milk at Dairy One, a local co-op, until he was injured on the job. Nowadays he spends his time at the center, collecting disability with one of the four computers he claims to own, chilling out in a lime green armchair that looks like it was attacked by a litter of psychotic kittens. People stop by to grab a cup of coffee with Neil and chat, and he gathers the center’s mail sometimes. He also offers tech support for the group’s computers. Neil calls it working. Everyone else at the center is equally amused and confused by his presence.

The Tompkins County Workers’ Center is actually just a corner. Tucked away on the third floor of Autumn Leaves Used Books on The Commons, the center sits in the back corner of a large room full of little “offices” of other organizations. Along the walls are booths for groups that aren’t anything more than “purely Ithaca.” It’s a city dedicated to the local, the liberal and the alternative. There are booths for local veterans’ rights, a peace and justice gift shop, the ever-optimistic newspaper Positive News and others that try to bring the world together with peace, love and locally grown vegetarian food.

The Workers’ Center’s corner looks like it was decorated during an argument between a political activist, a dumpster diver and a kindergartner. There are three desks in the office but none of them match. One of the chairs is so worn out that whenever you move in the seat it makes a loud, rippling farting sound. The bookshelves are packed with binders with titles like “Winning Wages: A Media Kit for Successful Living Wage Strategies.”

The windowsill has a plastic Appaloosa pony running across it, a heart-shaped glass bottle of sand art and certificates from local organizations thanking the center for its support.

Every space is covered in paper. Giant stacks of it are on every desk with boxes of more paper spread across the floor. Dozens of papers are taped to the two walls of the little office. Papers with phone numbers, drawings, photos, a “Cat Lovers Against the Bomb” calendar and posters promoting workers’ rights.

And in the midst of this literal Siberian forest of paper and craft projects and Neil are Pete Meyers and Linda Holzbaur. The two, along with some volunteer members and two interns are the fighting arm for the maligned employees of the community. With no legal team, the small group provides information, referral and advocacy services to local workers and fearlessly challenges bosses who treat their workers like disposable commodities.

David never realized just how easy he had it when he had to take down Goliath.

Meet The Team

Pete is a lunatic. At least that’s the impression he often gives off. With his short gray hair and his collection of shirts decorated with human-rights slogans, he’s a skinny, dark-colored mass that disappears and reappears from behind his desk frequently. No one knows where he seems to go. Sometimes you can hear him singing from other parts of the third floor. Sometimes instead of singing, he crows like a rooster. Pete has a mug and coffee maker within reach of his desk, but he never has less than two carry-out cups from the café downstairs. He often uses his mug as kind of a holster for the cardboard containers.

When Pete starts a project for the center, he launches himself into it. Lately Pete has been going crazy helping some employees at a local coffee shop form a union. It’s been taking up so much of his time that he remembered almost too late that the center also offered to help out at an event at a local theater.

“By the way, we’re sponsoring a movie this weekend,” he told Linda nonchalantly. “Want to come sit outside the theater with me?”

By the sound of Linda’s deep sigh, stuff like this seems to be pretty common. Linda’s a grandmother with a penchant for short skirts and brightly colored stockings, and while she may only work part time, she’s serious about her job. She keeps the website’s blog updated, answers phone calls and e-mails and designs newsletters.

Linda also spends a lot of her time playing straight man to Pete’s offbeat antics. When Pete described his busy schedule for the Workers’ Center and how it’s inspired people to call him “Action Jackson,” Linda didn’t hesitate to call him out on his error.

“You told us to call you Action Jackson,” she said, deadpan.

Then again, Pete is the only full-time employee of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center; maybe it’s OK that he’s comfortable with jumping off the board into the deep end. People are constantly calling with work problems. People not getting paid, people being sexually harassed, people being forced to handle hazardous materials without proper protection. Pete needs to be the go-to man for all of it and has been since the center was created.

Pete has dedicated so much time to the place that he’s become synonymous with it. Whenever there’s a picture of Workers’ Center in the local paper, he’s in it. Whenever the center is quoted, it’s almost always his quote. When people call, they ask for Pete. They know he’ll listen and do the best he can to make a difference.

One of the baristas from the unionizing coffee shop, Josh Geldzahler, was originally nervous about contacting the Workers’ Center, but the situation was getting out of hand. They weren’t receiving competitive wages or breaks and had lots of trouble getting their schedules in order with management. The employees didn’t know what to do, but Pete helped them organize and alleviated Josh’s fears.

“Pete wrote me and signed that first e-mail ‘In solidarity, Pete.’ At first I was like, what solidarity? But we’ve really come together, and that’s the best part of this whole thing. We’re looking out for each other, and that’s the secret to our strength.”

But what a lot of people don’t get about Pete is that he’s not a lawyer. He can’t represent anyone in court or sue a boss or anything of the sort. He’s just a social worker with a journalism degree that gave up the dream of sports broadcasting to organize the locally marginalized instead.

“I’ve come a long way,” Pete said. After taking one psychology course in college, he decided that journalism wasn’t for him and ended up working as a drug counselor in Brooklyn. But it was in South Bend, Ind., where he found his passion for workers’ rights. Pete was hired to be the director of the Readmobile, a mobile public library that goes around to different inner-city schools and promotes literacy through storytelling.

Well, I was fired,” Pete said, “because I advocated for an assistant — a black man who was a substitute teacher and really knew the area. They wanted a white guy with a Ph.D. who never worked with kids. I lost my case in federal court, and I was pissed.”

What is the Workers’ Center?

What began as the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition in 1997, the Workers’ Center has managed to build up quite a reputation in a relatively short amount of time. For years the Living Wage Coalition worked to help local employees get paychecks that actually helped them live and thrive, something minimum wage fails at. Today the minimum wage for the state of New York is $7.25 an hour. But Ithaca’s living wage, which is the amount of money people must earn hourly to meet the cost of food and shelter in their area, is around $11.11. The city, with its two colleges, high taxes and expensive real estate, is a tough place for a working-class family to make ends meet.

In May 2003, the coalition added a workers’ rights hot line so that they could help people with other workplace problems.

“Living wage is a pipe dream for some people,” Pete said. “So we made the Workers’ Rights Hot Line to deal with other issues.”

The hot line was so popular that the Living Wage Coalition opened up an entire Workers’ Rights Center. Today the Workers’ Center has more than 50 coalition partners from the religious community and different labor organizations. It’s a nonprofit organization that leads protests and letter-writing campaigns, mediates disputes between employees and employers, helps people pick the best course of action in the legal system and more. They’re a one-stop workers’ rights shop.

“Our vision is that we’ll increasingly be a powerhouse,” Pete said. “Workers will be happy, and abusive employers will quake at the mention of the Workers’ Center.”

All day long people call the center with their problems. Sometimes they’ll e-mail. Sometimes they’ll just drop by. Pete and Linda stay stationed at their computers and next to their phones, always waiting for the next case to come in.

At night, Pete and Linda host meetings at a big wooden table just outside the office’s corner. Sometimes the meetings are between groups of employees that want to challenge their boss together, but just as often it’s members of the community working together in different committees to make a change. Pete and Linda work on more than 200 cases a year; they can’t solve them, advertise and organize trips, protests and dinners by themselves.

Pete likes to call the help from the neighborhood “concertive action.” He really respects all the time the volunteers can offer and likes to keep the work with them both upbeat and productive. At a recent meeting held to write a radio public service announcement, Pete read aloud the script by imitating the different people sitting around the table, which, that day, happened to be all women. He ended up sounding like some strange falsetto Muppet, but everyone loved it.

Fighting for workers’ rights is a stressful job. There are dozens of organizations in Ithaca working to solve all kinds of social justice problems, but they tend to set lofty goals. Because of that, their membership bases often get frustrated and fall apart.

“People don’t care about people in another part of the world,” Pete said. “If you get people in the door, then you can talk about stuff like imperialism and capitalism. But first you need to get them in the door. That’s why we don’t call ourselves the Ithaca Anti-Capitalist Network or something.”

A lot of efforts can also seem to be almost selfish. How can I make a change and benefit myself, too? There’s really no bonus for the people who volunteer at the Center other than the opportunity to help make a difference in the life of an individual. The Workers’ Center runs entirely on grants and donations. They can’t afford to give their members anything but gratification.

“People think, ‘Oh yes, I’m working to change. I buy my groceries at GreenStar,’” Linda said with a flip of her hands. She gets frustrated when people brag about making a difference but don’t actually go out of their way to make a true effort.

What They Can Do

The lobby of Ithaca’s small claims court isn’t designed to make you comfortable while you wait for your case to be heard. It is an empty room with gray walls, a faded purple carpet and only two cracked vinyl chairs. There are no vending machines, no music and no newspapers or magazines. The only reading materials are some worn-out children’s books and some papers in a half-empty pamphlet rack on a particle-board table. “Young People and A.A.” “A.A. for the Black and African-American Alcoholic.” If you’d don’t have a drinking problem, you better have brought your own book.

There are no pictures on the walls except for a framed photo of the Tompkins County Bar Association of 2000 and a sign pointing toward the bathroom with an upside down clip art hand. It seems like even the people in charge of the lobby’s upkeep don’t want to be in there long enough to make the place presentable.

Small claims court began at 9:30 a.m. People started to filter in around 9:15 a.m. After a quick look around the gray room and the stack of pamphlets professing to carry “The Message,” they visibly wrinkled and wilted like an old foil birthday balloon with the air being let out.

“The first rule of court: Always bring a book because they never respect your time,” one man said with a sardonic smile as he whipped a copy of The Ithaca Journal from his briefcase.

Another man, wearing a black beret and forced to stand because the only two seats were taken, whispered angrily.

“I gotta take off for this bullshit. Hopefully, she won’t show, and we can go home … big f—ing waste of time.”

Most of the faces of the 15 or so people in the court that morning ran the expression gamut from tired to exasperated to “get me the hell out of here before I punch someone.” Arthur Whitman just looked scared. A young man in his late 20s with closely cropped black hair, Arthur kept wandering around the lobby and running his hands down his faded black corduroy pants. Having just come down with a cold a few days before, his nose was running and his skin was almost green.

Arthur was at court that morning because his former boss at City Health Club, in addition to making him work the front desk from 5:30 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., didn’t like giving out paychecks.

“I’ve had to beg for the past few months,” Arthur said.

By the time the young man quit around Christmas, he was owed more than $2,000. Arthur even worked extra days after walking out on the job just to give his boss one last opportunity to pay him. But when that didn’t happen, he called the Workers’ Center.

Linda came running up the three flights of steps just as everyone in the lobby began to filter into the courtroom. Today’s colorful ensemble consisted of purple stockings, a black-and-white dress, and a marigold-yellow cardigan with a matching beret. Even though she couldn’t be a lawyer for Arthur, she could be moral support. Arthur visibly relaxed at the sight of her, and they walked into the courtroom together.

The courtroom was not gray and purple like the lobby but just as stark. It was like a church. People sat in long wooden pews angled toward the center where the judge sat on a raised platform as if on the altar. There were two tables and podiums with chairs for people making cases to the judge, but no one bothered to actually sit down. They just wanted their problems settled and to get out as fast as possible.

While the first cases were heard, Arthur and Linda kept craning their necks to see if the owner of City Health Club would make it. Last week he was a no-show and made the two wait in the courtroom until almost noon. The boss said he couldn’t make it to court because it was snowing pretty heavily, but Arthur found out later that he made it to the gym just fine.

He didn’t show up again today. Arthur wouldn’t find out until he was called to the stand whether he would have to come back next week.

“See, this is why people end up getting screwed,” Linda leaned over and whispered to him. “Because people don’t show up. It’s possible you can have another job, and it would be difficult for you to come to this.”

“Yeah, lucky for me I’m still unemployed,” Arthur answered with a sad smirk as he wiped his nose.

While waiting for his name to be read by the judge, the two talked about his case. Linda and the staff at the Workers’ Center found one case with precedent in their database, but the charges were dropped. If Arthur were able to get the money owed to him, he would be the first positive example of the center’s new plan to put more workers dealing with owed wages through small claims court rather than the Department of Labor.

“The Department of Labor, well, there’s not many people working there, and it moves really slowly,” Linda said. “We advised that small claims would be better because it’s faster, just one month. Now when someone is mistreated, then Labor has more clout.”

The Workers’ Center also helped Arthur get the right court paperwork, pointed him in the direction of who to talk to about his case and even talked to his ex-boss.

Although, according to Linda, it was more of a nonsensical rant on his end.

When it was finally Arthur’s turn, Linda gave him a tap on the shoulder for encouragement as he walked up to the stand. But she remained seated.

“We don’t have any legal standing, but no one should go through this alone,” Linda said.

The case ended up being relatively easy. The boss hadn’t showed up, but he did notify the court that he would pay Arthur’s wages. Arthur faced the judge for less than five minutes. To celebrate, he asked Linda if he could borrow some money for coffee. Until that check came in, Arthur couldn’t afford to pay his landlady rent, so much as a small cup of plain coffee from Gimme!

Linda told him it was on the house.

What They Can’t Do

“Sometimes we get people with complaints the Workers’ Center can’t handle,” Linda said. Even though Linda only works in the office part time, she’s there more often than Pete. He works a lot from home. So Linda tends to be the one fielding the phone calls and office visits, putting everyone into two metaphorical piles: “We can help you” and “Sorry, go somewhere else.”

Cases like that come in every day.

Sometimes employees come in thinking that they were unjustly fired when really their boss had every reason to let them go. Other times they ask for help with things the Workers’ Center has no power over.

Like the Lord.

“People who have been hurt on the job, so that sounds like something we would take care of, right?” Linda asked as she shuffled papers around from one giant pile to another. “But then we find out that they think someone secretly hurt them because they don’t believe in God. That’s not something we can really take care of.”

One call that Linda recently answered was from a woman who was fired from a factory that manufactures motel-sized bottles of shampoo. The woman worked 12 hours a day for $8.50 an hour. One night on the line, she started to feel a severe, stabbing pain in her lower abdomen. When she went to the bathroom, there was no urine. Just blood. When the worker told her supervisor that she needed to go to the hospital, he wouldn’t let her leave until they could find a replacement. She had to ignore the agony ripping through her stomach and stay on the line, making complimentary bottles of shampoo and soap.

It wasn’t until almost four hours after she initially complained that a group leader for her section of the factory finally told her that she needed to go to the emergency room. She was promised that even though she was leaving early her job would be safe.

It ended up that the woman had a urinary tract infection, a kidney infection and kidney stones. It also ended up that she was fired. Unfortunately, the center couldn’t really do anything to help.

“It’s totally unfair, but it’s legal grounds for termination,” Linda said, visibly upset. Cases like this come in all the time: ones that the Workers’ Center would give anything to fix but that the government says are within perfectly legal parameters. When she talks about these kinds of calls, Linda’s voice becomes louder. Her fingers begin to press harder on the computer keys as she types her e-mails until it sounds like the keyboard is going to crack.

“There are so many people calling us for things they think are illegal in the workplace,” she said. “When really they would only be illegal if you were in a union.”

Potluck

When preparing a dish, guests at potluck dinners typically go down one of two routes: They show off their culinary prowess, or they whip out the Easy Mac.

Everyone knew that this potluck, co-hosted by the Workers’ Center and the Tompkins County Religious Task Force for a Living Wage, would be different when Pete walked into the basement of the local Unitarian church with giant bags of fried chicken from the supermarket. They sat on a serving table, filling the room with their spicy, greasy fragrance as volunteers unstacked chairs for the 100-or-so anticipated guests.

But this potluck wasn’t just a community get-together; it was a last meal. The two local advocacy organizations have been hosting the dinner for the past few years as a kickoff for a 40-hour fast. The amount of time is supposed to be symbolic of the 40-hour workweek and Jesus’ 40-day fast, among other biblical things that have to do with the number 40.

A fast is supposed to be a time of quiet, reflection and sacrifice. Both the Workers’ Center and the Religious Task Force wanted people to harness the power of fasting to reflect on workers’ rights and what they can do to make a difference.

The place was full. Kids were running up and down the aisles licking the cream out of Oreos while the adults reclined in their plastic chairs and talked about everything from the Workers’ Center to a new class on vegetable pickling. Neil showed up in his green vest and twine-tied glasses. He made more than one trip up to the table for food, and because he planned on fasting from sugar in the next few hours, piled his plate with brownies, cookies and Rice Krispie treats.

It took a while for Pete to calm the room down when he wanted to talk. Even though the space was small, he stood at the front and whipped out a microphone.

“Sorry to interrupt your conversation,” Pete said.

“No, you’re not,” Neil shouted back through a mouthful of tofu. There were a few chuckles from the people who knew Pete and his passion for getting attention.

While people continued to eat, the leader of the Workers’ Center reminded everyone about who exactly was hosting the event.

“The Workers’ Center is a community union rather than a labor union,” he said. “At heart, we’re kind of a community organization — people taking a stand for what’s important.”

Then as Pete brought up members of the community, people who have asked the Workers’ Center for help and people who have helped the Workers’ Center, the guests stopped chewing. They stopped going for second and third helpings. Everyone listened as people walked to the front of the room and told their stories, and everyone smiled as they realized that their volunteerism helped make a difference to their friends and neighbors.

Jami Breedlove stood at the front and talked about when she called the center after finding out that her hairstylist, Amber, was fired for not selling enough shampoo at the salon. Because of her call, the haircutting chain where Amber was employed has come under major fire for unethical working policies, and Amber got the support of the community.

“I’ve seen what a movement of people can do with just one shovel at a time and hold hands,” Jami said, facing Amber. “We want to help people pull themselves up, so that they won’t sink down. And then they can climb higher.”

It was like an employees’ Thanksgiving. People kept standing up to talk about how grateful they were for the community and the Workers’ Center. An old woman, Theresa, sat hunchbacked in her chair. Her pale, blue-veined and wrinkled fingers stayed crossed on the table. Her aging body seemed frail beneath her bulky sweater with its giant black socialist button. She didn’t stand up to talk in front of the room, but in the silence between speakers she summarized what the Workers’ Center is all about.

“Solidarity feels good.”

No one really had anything else to say after that. The room sat in a companionable, meditative silence. Even the kids stopped licking their Oreos for a minute as everyone sat with their own thoughts about workers’ rights and the hopes for a better future.

Finally, Theresa broke the silence. “We should sing,” she said.

Pastor Benson stood up from his seat. An older black man, he was the finest dressed of the potluck guests. He grasped the buttons on his gray sport coat, straightened it out and started to sing in a hoarse voice:

“This is the day the Lord has made, and I will rejoice. Oh! This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it. I will rejoice for He has made me glad.”

People didn’t seem to know the words, but as Pastor Benson swayed with the rhythm and repeated the lyrics with a scratchy voice, everyone tried to chime in. At one point Theresa stood up and started walking from table to table, trying to get more men and women to raise their voices. People started to dance in their chairs and clap their hands. Pete and Linda looked relaxed and happy, leaning back and smiling. For the rest of the night, the guests could take over the fight for workers’ rights. Pete and Linda could eat, talk with friends and just rest for a minute before all the work started again tomorrow.

“Drop down into yourself, into a deep place of wisdom and compassion and notice your breathing. The feeling of earth beneath your feet,” the pastor said. “Expand that connection to all those people in our community, our country, to those whose right to work has been denied. May we live in a world where justice rolls like water. People just want a decent wage! Can I hear an amen?”

Amen.

*Author’s Note: As of April 29, Arthur Whitman has received $150 but not the full sum he is owed by the City Health Club. Although the decision from small claims court was in Whitman’s favor, the court has no power to enforce its decision. Whitman and the Workers’ Center are now seeking to gain his paychecks through other legal channels.