At a meeting with members of the immigrant advocacy group Unidad Latina en Accion last night, Yalies confronted the problem of wage theft at restaurants and businesses on and surrounding Yale’s campus.
On Tuesday night in Dwight Hall, five representatives from ULA spoke about labor issues in New Haven, including wage theft, sexual harassment and unsafe work environments. The event was organized by MEChA de Yale, a student group that serves New Haven’s Chicano community through education and political action, and drew a crowd of over 20 students from various campus organizations. At the meeting, ULA members discussed their personal experiences with unfair treatment in the workplace and urged students to take action.
“There are a lot of injustices happening right now in downtown New Haven,” said ULA member John Lugo. “Many things happen in this community and nobody knows about it.”
Lugo added that New Haven has a large immigrant community of 15,000 people performing many different jobs crucial to the city’s functioning. But, he added, “they’re the ones who are abused the most.”
Wage theft has been a high-profile issue in the Elm City in recent months. ULA’s lobbying and support helped six former kitchen workers at the restaurant Downtown at the Taft win a $50,000 lawsuit three weeks ago, after the restaurant failed to pay minimum wage and overtime to its cooking staff. Last April, a branch of ULA called the New Haven Workers Association organized a successful boycott of Café Goodfellas because its owners refused to pay minimum wage to kitchen workers.
Over the course of the evening, three ULA members recounted their personal experiences of workplace injustice occurring close to campus.
ULA member John Molina said he held a job at Caffé Bravo on Orange Street for four years, working 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for “very low pay.” When he finally decided to quit because of the long hours and low pay, Molina gave his boss his two weeks’ notice. After weeks of waiting and repeated requests for for his final paycheck, Molina sought out his boss in person, only to be accused of stealing and ordered to leave the premises.
Molina said he later faced a similar situation at Stop & Shop on Whalley Avenue just a few weeks ago, where a contractor who hired him refused to pay him for his cleaning work. Companies that need workers for construction, cleaning and landscaping, Molina said, tend to “hire private contractors that then hire workers, so [the companies] cannot be held accountable for anything.”
To fight against such workplace injustices, Lugo said, ULA stresses the importance of direct action to help enact immediate change in the community.
“When someone doesn’t get paid, there’s always a long process to go through with the U.S. Labor Department — sometimes it takes up to two years, sometimes nothing happens at all,” he said. “Eighty percent of the cases taken on by ULA were solved because we use direct action. We rally around the community, work in a coalition with many people and make things happen.”
ULA also seeks to create alliances both within and beyond Yale, Lugo said, emphasizing the need for a dialogue between people from diverse communities.
Roselyn Cruz ’15, a member of MEChA who helped organize the event, said that one of MEChA’s goals for the night was to inspire Yalies to support workers’ rights and get involved in some of ULA’s ongoing projects. In addition, she added, MEChA hopes to start a New Haven restaurant guide for Yalies this semester to guide them in choosing restaurants and shops that treat their workers fairly and avoiding those that do not.
But MEChA’s overarching goal, Cruz said, is not specific to justice for the immigrant community.
“So many other workers suffer from these issues, and we are working for social justice for everyone and with everyone, regardless of what community you come from,” she said.
The current minimum wage in Connecticut is $8.25 per hour.