When I came to Arkansas in 1974 it was like coming to some sort of alternate universe, in that I came from a state with strong unions to ne of the dreaded “Right to Work” states. Right to Work, of course, is just another term for Right to Starve.
I think that a sort of Victim Mentality grips many of the workers here in Arkansas, and I suffered from it as well, to a certain extent, I suspect. If you are getting screwed over in your job, you either take it, or just quit and go to another job, where you may get screwed over yet again.
There are ways out of this trap. The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center is one of the shining lights in our area.
Working Class Heroes
Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center stands up for all workers
Written by Richard S. Drake
Every day cheery newscasters tell us of gains on Wall Street, of stocks rising, and the fortunes of CEOs. Occasionally, here and there, a story might be thrown in about layoffs or health care, but for the most part, the news broadcasts - local and national - serve as cheerleading squads for corporate America.
But for Rachel Townsend, thinking about workers and the less than ideal circumstances in which they work is an everyday responsibility.
Townsend is director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center, an organization set up to educate workers about their rights, and to help intercede when those rights are trampled upon. As their Mission Statement reads:
"The mission of the Interfaith Workers' Justice Center of Northwest Arkansas is to support religious congregations, workers and their organizations, and community groups in their efforts to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions."
Townsend has been involved with the Workers' Justice Center for close to three years. She began by volunteering at different levels, and in 2006 was able to do two semesters of internship at the center.
She said that she worked on a myriad of projects as a volunteer. "We had all sorts of functions. Dinners, celebrations, outreach, and a wage-theft task force was formed."
Those at the center were quickly becoming aware that "wage theft" was becoming a larger issue in Northwest Arkansas, and wanted to tackle the subject head on. To put it in stark, simple terms, wage theft occurs when someone is not paid an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.
Townsend says that wage theft can happen in any number of ways. "Wage theft is when an employer hires a worker with a verbal agreement to pay them on a set day, or in a set time frame, like in a month. ‘‘You work for me and I'll pay you in a month.'
"A month goes by, and the worker goes to get his paycheck. The employer does one of many things. He says,'Keep working for the next two weeks, and you'll get your paycheck, I haven't been paid from the contractor, when I get money from them you'll get your pay check. You should stay working here.'"
Sometimes the employer just disappears, and the worker has no way to find them.
When asked how often such a problem really occurs, her response is simple and stark, "It is actually becoming an epidemic." Currently the center is dealing with wage theft claims totaling over one hundred thousand dollars.
Most often, it is in the field of construction work where workers are most vulnerable to this sort of crime. Even though it is becoming a major problem, Townsend says that there has been a certain amount of success is helping workers who have been cheated out of their wages.
"We've been relatively successful in helping our worker organizers write letters to their employers, and also pursuing that claim through the Department of Labor. Typically people when they get a letter from the Department of Labor realize that an authority has stepped in, and we have received a check.
"It doesn't always work, and there are some pretty rigid limitations as to what the Department of Labor will pursue in terms of money, and it's a pretty small amount. We are trying to get creative, and do small group work, so that people can organize around the issue and kind of explore different ways to approach the contractors and sub-contractors."
There are several guiding principles that the Justice Center operates under. According to their website:
"Organizing is the most effective way to address workplace problems. Most workplace problems are faced by many workers and are best solved with the involvement of many workers."
Along with this philosophy, there are several principles that the Justice Center believes in. According to their website:
"Workers must control the decisions affecting their lives. Advocates, attorneys, pastors, and friends can help with information and support, but workers must be actively involved in making their own decisions."
The website also advises that challenging unjust systems can often involve risks, which not all workers can afford to take.
Townsend acknowledges that some workers may find it difficult to find work once they stand up for what is right. She pointed to one particular example of an employee whose complaints about safety violations resulted in the plant being fined.
"This person feels that they can not get a job because of that claim. They were also fired, and which they perceived as retaliation for making that claim, and we support that interpretation of events."
While there are avenues that one can follow when fired unjustly from a job, Townsend says that it can be very difficult to prove. She stresses how important it is to document events that lead up to a confrontation with the employer.
"One thing that the Workers' Center does is teach people how to document violations on the job. We teach what their rights are, and how to assert those rights with their employers."
Though many of the individuals who seek help from the Workers' Justice center are Hispanic, the Center's goal is to be of assistance to any worker who needs help, no matter their race, gender, religion or citizenship status.
There is another form of wage theft that the Center is interested in. "The Department of Labor found when researching poultry plants that one hundred percent of poultry plants did not pay all of their workers for the time that they have worked."
Townsend is referring to what are known as "donning and doffing" laws," which mean that employers routinely do not pay employees for the time it takes to take off or put on protective clothing during "breaks" in poultry plants.
As anyone who has worked in a poultry plant can tell you, a fifteen or ten minute break is often shaved by several minutes by the clothing requirements.
The law firm founded by the late Johnny Cochran has filed five suits in federal court in recent months over this very issue, seeking paid back pay for the time it takes to take off and put on protective clothing, and passing through security on breaks.
The Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center has an enviable list of accomplishments.
In Bentonville, the Center assisted 800 poultry workers to force their employer to provide safety equipment. The matter came to their attention after a worker at the plant lost his eyesight, due to being splashed with hazardous chemicals.
Incredibly, the workers had not only not been provided with safety glasses, but they had not been informed of just how dangerous the chemicals they were working with could be.
The Center has also assisted in over three hundred cases of workplace abuse in Northwest Arkansas, and has helped local workers recover $40,000 in back wages, safety and health, and discrimination claims.
A lot of people might think that with a name like "Workers' Justice Center," Townsend and Company might be stuck sometime in the 1960s. Not so, she counters.
"I think that the language that we choose to use is very important, and we think that we use ‘Justice’ because it does have a history. Especially in the South, we've seen Civil Rights struggles and the term justice used in the context of absolute moral authority, in terms of equality.
"We deliberately use that word, not because we are an organization that is politically radical or politically conservative, but we are an organization that looks at the history of struggle in the U.S. and views that as an appropriate term."
Another misunderstanding that some might have is that the Center is geared primarily towards helping Hispanic or low-income workers.
"We are for all workers. The Workers' Center philosophy believes that when one person is being oppressed, all people are damaged by that oppression."
She added, "Nobody can be well psychologically if their riches or life depend on the instability of someone else's life."
There are many forms of harassment individuals can face on the job, Townsend said.
"Women in particular are vulnerable in the workplace. I think I've not ever met a woman that has not experienced some form of sexual harassment or innuendo that made her uncomfortable."
She recounted the story of a local woman who worked in a restaurant whose boss insisted not only that she date him, but that she move in with him. When she refused, he fired her.
There have also been stories of racism that have reached the Center.
Some people may not actually realize they are being harassed. Some people come from a culture in which workers have few, if any, rights, and they are excited when they discover that they do not have to accept certain behaviors from employers.
Older workers also face discrimination on the job."Older workers face harassment in terms of being fired - that firing, of course not being pointed to age. But as people age their bodies change, and because of a lifetime of work, they have frailties.
"They are often fired because they are unable to continue doing the same job, instead of being moved to a different job."
Townsend says the same situation is similar to that of individuals with disabilities. "People with disabilities are assumed to be unable to function at a job, which is not true."
How do people find out about the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center?
"The wonderful thing about community is that people talk. Word-of-mouth is huge for us. We have a wonderful worker advocate named Lucy Daniels who does television spots, and has been on the radio. And we are in the community all the time. We try to connect with community events and have tables and set up and talk to people about what we are doing."
There are several ways that people can help out by volunteering at the center, from setting up tables to education to giving workshops to office work.
Currently, the Center has over a hundred open cases of different sorts that it is involved in.
Townsend says that the Center often works in conjunction with similar centers across the United States. Townsend also said, "We have been so fortunate to be a part of a community that is truly invested in justice. The OMNI Center for Peace, the AFL-CIO, the Northwest Arkansas Labor Council, the Hispanic Women's Organization, the center for Culture and Understanding.
"We are so lucky to be situated where we are with all sorts of potential for more connection, deeper connection."
The Workers' Justice Center has two locations in Northwest Arkansas. The Fayetteville office can be found at the United Presbyterian Church, located at the corner of Maple and Storer. The primary office, in Springdale, is located on Sunset.
In May, the Center took part in a candlelight vigil and a "Solidarity Supper, to honor Arkansas workers who had lost their lives or given their health on the job this past year.
What does the future hold?
"In the future we are looking forward to a wage-theft campaign that is going to be staffed by a full-time employee at the Center, policy around that issue, and of course policy surrounding issues about worker compensation."
While it is unfortunate that our society still faces so many harassment/discrimination issues in the workplace, workers in Northwest Arkansas can be grateful that the Workers' Justice Center is in their corner.
Those interested in more information, or looking to volunteer, can call 479-750-8015, or go to their website at www.nwawjc.org.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, "Freedom Run," and a recent history of Fayetteville, "Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002."
Arkansas Free Press - July, 2007