For detailed notes on the questions asked of each panelist during this conference, click here.
Rights of Athens Workers Conference Recap by Gretchen Elsner
Edited by Uma Nagendra
When I moved from Canada to America in 2009, the first job I landed was as a waitress at a Waffle House. Before they gave me my “waffle suit,” however, I had to sign a “binding arbitration agreement”– signing away my rights to bring a lawsuit against the company. I had several experiences during my employment with that company which required me to avail myself of the protections and rights the company offers, and I also had to call the Department of Labor at one point to secure my greater rights as a worker, and basically get the government to go to bat for me since I knew I had no recourse as an individual. I knew I couldn’t go take my employer to court over the matter, since I signed the binding arbitration agreement. For many companies, signing an agreement like this is a mandatory condition of employment. In a situation like this, who can workers call on for help?
My story is not an uncommon one. In a state like Georgia, where unions are rare and worker protections are few, it can seem particularly daunting just to know where to turn for help when a bad situation arises on the job. There are not many ways that workers can know what rights they have and what rights they don’t have. With Labor Day just around the corner, the first annual Rights of Athens Workers Conference (RAWC) sought to support Athens workers by answering some of those very questions.
On Sunday, Sept, 6, Athens for Everyone (A4E) hosted RAWC at the Public Library. An ethnically diverse group of all ages filled the room, including university students, fast food employees, and numerous locals active in the community participating in the event. District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link was there among the more than 40 people in attendance. The event began with an energetic and informative panel discussion. This was followed by a resource fair including a “share your story” booth, surveys, and local advocacy groups.
Jesse Houle from A4E moderated the panel. The panelists were Matthew Epperson of Peachy Green Clean Co-Op, Linda Lloyd of the Economic Justice Coalition (EJC), and John Beasley, a local labor attorney.
The panel helped shed light on many issues that Athens workers face, clear up misconceptions, and highlight good resources for worker protections. When I asked about mandatory arbitration agreements, for instance, John Beasley helped the rest of the room understand what they are and what workers can do about them. These agreements obligate employees to settle disputes out of court, through a legal arbiter. You sign away your rights to bring a lawsuit to a jury of your peers, but you can still work with a lawyer to settle an employment matter. John Beasley encouraged employees to take ownership of their situation. Many companies grant specific rights through the employee manual, so it’s a good idea to get a copy, read it, and share the information with your coworkers.
In addition to company-specific policies, there are numerous federal protections and agencies that Georgia workers can rely on for protection. The panel returned to these federal policies repeatedly, because they are the ones that help workers where Georgia State policies fail them. In fact, Georgia imposes several restrictions that make worker advocacy particularly tricky. Georgia is a Right-to-Work, At-Will state, meaning that employees have the right to quit their job, but employers also have the right to fire an employee. Individual employees seeking a raise or better working conditions risk being fired on the spot. However, federal law protects the rights of workers to gather together for collective bargaining, whether or not they are part of a union. This is called “concerted activity.” It is important to join with your coworkers to ask for raises or sick leave because group activity is protected, while individual activity is not.
If your employer is violating standing labor laws (such as withholding your pay or acting in a discriminatory manner), this federal labor law protects you even as an individual. You don’t need to rely on group concerted activity when employers are breaking the law.
In addition, Georgia has a state law which prevents local governments from setting their own minimum wage. Matthew Epperson explained that this restriction prevents Georgia activists from conducting the same types of worker’s rights campaigns as in other states. Instead of calling for a state-wide living wage policy, current campaigns by groups such as the Economic Justice Coalition must put pressure on individual employers (such as the University of Georgia) to provide living wages. For instance, there is currently a petition to pressure the county to pay all county employees a living wage. Georgia workers can also advocate for federal policy changes; if a new Department of Labor policy passes, workers can only be exempt from overtime pay if they make more than a $50,000 salary.
Worker’s rights are particularly important for undocumented workers in our community. In addition to the issues that affect citizen workers, they are affected by language barriers, the threat of deportation for speaking out, as well as employers who know they can target undocumented workers with few repercussions. Community organizer Beto Mendoza asked, “How can we get justice under this current system?” John Beasley pointed out that all workers in the United States have the same rights. The issue for undocumented workers is that stepping forward is difficult. In these cases there is an even greater need for community support. If an employer is treating an undocumented worker unfairly it is in their best interest to resolve the issue, because they, too, are breaking the law by hiring an undocumented worker. Each party faces legal repercussions.
Part of the solution in general is encouraging worker-friendly industries and employment here in Athens. District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link expressed concern that attracting large companies such as Caterpillar may not be worth the tax incentives the county used to lure them in. Linda Lloyd of the Economic Justice Coalition explained two ways that EJC supports local living-wage jobs. The first is by creating those very jobs via co-ops such as Peachy Green Clean. Linda Lloyd pointed out that 80% of new jobs come from small businesses. Often governments look to big businesses to create jobs, but the reality is that small businesses create more jobs with fewer burdens on taxpayers. The second is through a worker-friendly business list, which helps customers identify businesses to support based on how they treat their employees. By supporting businesses that treat their workers well, you “vote with your dollars,” according to Matthew Epperson.
Once these worker-friendly businesses and co-ops exist, how do they compete with the market? I have worked 14 years in my trade as a clothing designer, and in many cases I have found that it is impossible for me to compete with a garment industry that pays people pennies per day on the other side of the world. In running my business I had learned a lot about how to get people to pay more for the products I create. Matthew Epperson noted that Peachy Green Clean Co-op competes with cheaper alternatives by offering incentives and discounts to long-term customers. Living wage companies and co-ops often also provide higher value for customers’ money. For instance, Peachy Green’s service may cost up to 25% more, but they offer more care and concern in the service they provide, such as in-house manufactured eco-friendly cleaning supplies.
John Beasley ended the discussion by saying that, especially when unions are virtually nonexistent here, workshops and conferences like this one are the best way to get the word out about our rights as workers, and to educate people. We are gathering for mutual aid and protection, which is always our right, whether we live in a Right-to-Work state or not.
After the panel discussion ended, A4E had more fun and games in store. There was a “Share your story!” booth to record your own story about workplace issues. Several laptops were set up for folks to complete surveys about work experiences and help direct further action. The panelists made themselves available to talk further, but I took my time filling out the data survey. The questions were about workplace proximity to home, enjoyment, shift/break length, and level of awareness of rights. I wanted to sit down and share my experience in dealing with my one and only corporate job at the Waffle House. Tim Denson of A4E sat down with me and asked me a few leading questions and let me elaborate on my thoughts. I heard myself say something I have found to be true in many scenarios: that when a ‘power that be” restricts freedoms, or rights of others in favor of their power it is a sad consequence that, often times, the people being restricted/imposed upon, start fighting among themselves rather than take on the source of the problem. I believe that it is events like this conference that give us a chance to come together and reinforce our commonality, and set up rights and responsibilities that bring out the best of our abilities and cooperative powers. With the rate that the ice caps are melting we have little time to lose!