On the Saturday before Labor Day, workers and activists from Unidad Latina en Acción gathered in front of Atticus Bookstore & Café on Chapel Street. Later, the same group rallied in front of Thai Taste a block away. They waved signs, chanted and called for all New Haveners — including Yale students — to stand against unfair labor practices by boycotting the two restaurants.
We need to listen to them.
Workers in the service industry are too often forced to work in abysmal conditions for poverty wages with few benefits. Many, like me, believe that the minimum wage should be $15 an hour (at least in cities), and that employers should provide robust benefits so that all workers can live with dignity, if not comfortably. Some, perhaps amazingly, believe otherwise.
But I’ve met no one, regardless of their political beliefs about the minimum wage or workers’ rights, who believes that it is acceptable for employers to break the law by failing to pay their employees the required overtime rate, nor have I encountered anyone who believes that it is right for employers to fire workers without notice or cause, especially without a fair severance package.
The accusations, briefly: Three former Thai Taste employees have filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, indicating that Thai Taste systematically failed to pay them overtime wages totaling $37,000 over several years. Atticus Bookstore & Cafe, meanwhile, is accused of firing an 11-year employee without cause or notice, and offering him a pittance of a severance package in exchange for his silence, because he objected to management’s efforts to reduce his pay, hours and benefits.
It should be noted that this is not Atticus’ first time tangling with workers’ rights advocates. In 2010, a staff memo that opened with “Here we speak English,” and which barred the largely Hispanic staff from speaking Spanish in earshot of customers, sparked controversy. Allegations have persisted over the years that workers were fired for challenging the policy, and that, in a separate incident, Atticus hired a union-busting firm to thwart employees who were attempting to unionize (a legal right).
You’ve read this far, so you can’t feign ignorance of the problem. Now you need to take the next step: When workers in New Haven stand up and tell us that their employers are exploiting and mistreating them, we need to side with them and take our business elsewhere.
Yalies have mixed records on this. In 2013, when ULA uncovered the rampant wage theft at Gourmet Heaven (now Good Nature Market) and called for a boycott, many Yalies listened. But many other Yalies continued to frequent “G-Heav” even before University Properties evicted the old management, despite the fact that the State Department of Labor arrested the owner, Chung Cho, and found that he owed his workers $218,000 in unpaid wages.
Frankly, it was nasty and selfish of so many Yalies to choose their bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches over the low-wage workers who were being exploited. To the broader New Haven community, it reinforced the stereotype that Yalies were privileged, elitist, self-interested snobs.
We have a chance to rewrite that narrative and defend our neighbors in New Haven against mistreatment and abuse: We can listen, and we can boycott.
Some may worry that boycotts hurt workers rather than help them, but this simply isn’t the case. Of course businesses will suffer if we boycott them, but workers around the city will see better treatment as a result. While wage theft is a cruel act, employers don’t steal from their employees because they want to cause pain — they do it out of greed, to make a few extra bucks. If they lose enough business, they’ll learn that exploitation doesn’t pay. Successful boycotts don’t just change the behavior of the people they target — they send a message to employers everywhere that they can’t get away with mistreating workers without consequences.
Some may worry that boycotts are ineffective altogether: also untrue. From the Montgomery Bus Boycotts to the boycott of the South African apartheid government, to the recent boycotts that convinced Chick-Fil-A to stop funding anti-gay causes and that shut G-Heav down for good, there is a clear history of boycotts changing behavior.
So next time you need a cup of coffee, choose Starbucks, Book Trader or Willoughby’s, all within a block of Atticus. And next time you want to eat Thai food, walk half a block from Thai Taste to Pad Thai Restaurant, or try Jeera Thai on Crown or Pho & Spice on Temple.
But until the boycott is lifted, don’t go near Atticus or Thai Taste. Yalies need to speak with one voice and send a clear message: The only places that will get our business are ones that pay and treat their workers fairly. No exceptions.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .