The Workers’ Center of Central New York is a grassroots organization focused upon workplace and economic justice. It is part of a nation-wide network of innovative workers’ centers affiliated with the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). It operates in and around the city of Syracuse, a city with one of the highest rates of poverty in the country, driven by deindustrialization and deunionization, the entrenchment of widespread joblessness and the proliferation of low-wage jobs. Through community organizing, leadership development, popular education and policy advocacy, the Workers’ Center of Central New York empowers low-wage workers to combat workplace abuses and improve wages and working conditions throughout the community. The Workers’ Center facilitates worker empowerment and leadership development through trainings related to workers’ rights and occupational health and safety, orchestrates campaigns to combat wage theft and to promote employer compliance with the law, and engages in organizing and coalition-building to push for policies that will increase wages and workplace standards and promote human rights.
We are very grateful to our funders, including:
Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, The Abelard Foundation, Berger Marks Foundation, Sparkplug Foundation, RESIST INC, Presbyterian Hunger Program, UCC Neighbors in Need Program, the New York Immigration Coalition, The Hispanic Federation, the Sociological Initiatives Foundation, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Worker Justice Center and the Occupational Health Clinical Center.
In 2005, the CNY Labor-Religion Coalition was exploring how it might undertake a project that would embody its values in the larger community, especially its concerns for economic justice. Many of us drew inspiration from the work of scholar/activist Janice Fine, author of Workers’ Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream and the practical work of Jose Oliva, the talented Worker Center Coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice. Both visited Syracuse and met with us, and the LRC decided to make the creation of a Workers Center its major project. In 2006, it opened its doors on a limited basis, staffed by a half-time organizer, with a focus on the issues facing low-wage and immigrant workers.
Early activities included:
• A research/action project that documented the food that comes to Central New Yorkers because of the labor of immigrant farm or dairy workers.
• The development of a Detention Task Force to assist families and children impacted by anti-immigrant activity or hate. This has involved bail facilitation, the accompaniment of former detainees to Immigration Court in Buffalo or Batavia, New York
• Action around wage theft against workers in construction, food service, and janitorial services
• Action and advocacy related to human trafficking, which ultimately led to law enforcement certification of the first victim of human trafficking in Onondaga County.
• “Know Your Rights” popular education workshops, focused on employment law and occupational health and safety (in both English and Spanish)
• A “hospitality without harm” campaign with hotel housekeepers who suffer physical and economic distress from the conditions of their work
• A massive response to the discovery of a human trafficking ring by a long-time contractor/vendor at the Great New York State Fair, affecting 19 guest workers who had been cheated, who were malnourished, and who were constantly threatened
• A press conference calling attention to the problem of wage theft in Central New York, with specific examples drawn from workers with whom we have worked
• A Job Fairness event, the first of its kind in the state, whose purpose was to help entry-level workers better understand their workplace rights and how the presence of a union impacts workers’ rights
We are moving toward building a center that is more financially independent, and driven more directly by low-wage and immigrant workers. Like TCWC, we are moving to a more diverse, membership-based group.