WILLIAMS: Why we boycott

Perhaps you have seen or read about the picket outside Gourmet Heaven, and you agree that the wage violations are appalling, but you wonder if boycotting will solve the problem. Will it make things worse?

In order to understand why the New Haven Workers Association, Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) and MEChA de Yale are calling on students to boycott Gourmet Heaven, we need to look at the larger story of wage theft in America.

You may think that fixing our broken immigration laws will prevent employers from exploiting workers. But even if all immigrant workers were granted citizenship tomorrow (something that is unlikely given the current situation in Washington), wage theft would not disappear, just as police brutality or abuse of tenants by landlords would not disappear. Wage theft is a widespread national epidemic affecting people of all races. Studies show that one in five low-wage workers in U.S. cities have suffered minimum wage violations at some point.

If the minimum wage laws exist, why is wage theft so common? Doesn’t the Department of Labor enforce these laws? It would be nice to think that the DOL will make everything better at Gourmet Heaven, and so we can sit back and enjoy our sandwiches guilt-free.

The fact is, many restaurants in New Haven continue to violate the wage laws, despite multiple interventions by the DOL. Take, for example, Goodfellas, an expensive Italian restaurant on State Street. ULA picketed Goodfellas for several months in 2011 until the owner finally agreed to pay $23,000 owed to four workers. Several years before, the DOL had fined the same restaurant $9,300 and forced the owner to pay $9,527.51 in stolen wages to 10 other workers. The existence of such “repeat offenders” proves that boycotts are a necessary and effective tool for workers to enforce fair wages.

Since the DOL was created during the Great Depression, protections have been gutted. According to Interfaith Worker Justice, “In 1941, the US DOL had 1,700 investigators — one investigator for every 9,000 workers. They inspected 1 in 10 businesses. … In 2010, the DOL had only 1,000 investigators — one investigator for every 130,000 workers who are covered by minimum wage laws.” It is no wonder that conditions continue to deteriorate!

Workers can no longer stand by and wait for a weak regulatory agency to enforce regulations that are wholly inadequate. The only workers who earn a living wage in this country are the ones who have organized and demanded it. Boycotts have proven to be one of the most effective ways for workers to exercise their power and for consumers to support them.

By boycotting Gourmet Heaven in a public way, we send a message to other workers that they are not alone, and that they too can come out of the shadows and demand fair compensation. We send a message to employers across the city that they should think twice before cheating workers. We send a message to the owner of Gourmet Heaven that he better not intimidate the workers or retaliate against them for cooperating with the DOL investigation.

In addition to boycotting, we do need systemic changes. We need a stronger Department of Labor. We need a livable minimum wage. We need municipal legislation that would treat an employer who steals thousands of dollars from a worker the same as, well, any other criminal who steals thousands of dollars from anyone else. But these systemic changes are not a substitute for an on-the-ground movement on behalf of particular workers being abused by particular employers. Grassroots movements like the one against Gourmet Heaven are our best chance to get these changes. The workers and members of ULA who are asking you to join the boycott are the same people who were in Hartford last spring lobbying to raise the minimum wage and in Washington, D.C., this summer demanding an end to deportations.

That’s why we will be on the picket line again this Friday at 5:30, outside Gourmet Heaven’s Broadway location, and every Friday thereafter until the demands of the workers are met. We hope that you join us, and we think you will find it much more satisfying than a sandwich from Gourmet Heaven.

Greg Williams is a student at Yale Divinity School.