By Andrew Frisicano
Pete Meyers is the co-founder and coordinator of the Tompkins Country Workers’ Center, a local organization at the forefront of Ithaca’s workers’ rights movement. The Center frequently petitions for workers’ rights on both the state and local levels, as well as assisting local workers with grievances. He sat down with Buzzsaw editor Andrew Frisicano, currently an intern at the Workers’ Center, for a friendly chat. Here’s what transpired.
Buzzsaw Haircut: So what role does the Workers’ Center serve in the Ithaca community?
Pete Meyers: I get this question asked so many times, and it constantly evolves in my mind. I would say that ultimately it’s about raising the standard as to what workers and all people should expect in terms of wages and in terms of treatment at work. But it’s also larger than that. We deal with housing issues, we deal with the Department of Social Services and immigrants as well, as to what they should expect and learn to demand.
We have different mechanisms by which we do that. For example, we have a workers’ rights hotline. People call the hotline and need help at work, so we work with them, and, at the minimum, if it seems appropriate to refer them to another agency we would do that. We will oftentimes communicate with an employer directly, and sometimes it turns into a larger community campaign. We’ve had three or four high profile cases that became community campaigns.
What we’re ultimately trying to do is engage more of the workers who are the most directly affected – who are making less than a living wage, living in poverty – to get involved and take leadership in some of the campaigns we do. So our ultimate aim is to organize people and organize with people, and kind of everything we do is in service to that.
BH: So the workers’ center is a pretty unique place?
PM: Yeah. People get referred here if they have a workers’ rights issue. In terms of the larger economic justice issues, we pretty much deal with issues in a political way. There are some organizations out there that deal with issues of poverty, but they deal with it more in terms of service, and helping people from that angle. We do do that. A lot of the people who come to the workers center are living in poverty, but we’re trying to elevate those issues into political issues as well.
We were called the Living Wage Coalition, and we changed [our name] to the Workers’ Center. Living Wage Coalition was too much of an issue-oriented thing. Living wage is still very central to what we do, but we wanted to make it a workers’ center, [because it] makes it seem like a place where workers are welcome. It’s not just an issue; it’s a place for us to be at. Also, workers’ centers are a growing movement around the country.
BH: Is there resistance to the issue of the living wage?
PM: We get some amount, I would say, especially [from] political conservatives, but I think there’s a lot of widespread support for it. We take our banner that says Living Wage Coalition into rural areas, and people cheer as we go by in parades.
I think political conservatives will say that we should have other ways to raise the incomes of people, like the earned income tax credit. The earned income tax credit is great, but I don’t believe that it’s really lifting people out of poverty.
One of the other criticisms from some people is that if a family is living in poverty, and you all of a sudden pay them a living wage, that will make them ineligible for some social service programs. There could be some truth to that, but the problem is that there’s such a high percentage of people who don’t apply for social service programs because of the shame and humiliation that goes with that. I think that most people would rather be able to provide for themselves from their [own] labor, rather than relying on the welfare system. I’m not arguing against the welfare system at all, but I’m just saying that there’re a lot of people who don’t even want to bother with it.
BH: What effect do the colleges have on the Ithaca economy? How does Ithaca compare to towns in the area that don’t have these huge institutions?
PM: There are upsides and downsides. I think Cornell and Ithaca College increase the rents dramatically. So if you lived in Cortland County or Tioga County rents in the towns would be much cheaper than they are here. There are poor people downtown, but many poor people have to live in the rural areas because they can’t afford to live in Ithaca. Now people come from all over – probably like a six county radius – to work at Cornell and Ithaca College. They are big employers, so they help in that way.
BH: What one thing would be the biggest improvement in the poverty in Ithaca? Would it involve the colleges taking action or the town and city?
PM: I think it would actually involve the workers themselves – just for them to say that they’re not going to put up with it anymore.
We used to have this “Wal-Mart Pay a Living Wage” campaign. We had this table in the Commons, and this young black woman stopped by the table and said she works at Wal-Mart, and she is upset at our sign. We talked for like a half an hour, and she said she’s making seven dollars an hour, [and] that’s all she deserves. I talked to her about unions, autoworkers 80 years ago that were making below minimum wage, and now an autoworker, because they’re organized, wouldn’t make less than 25 dollars an hour. So it’s all relative. It’s how much you think you’re worth. So she stopped by the table a month later and quit the job to find a higher paying job – you know, eight dollars an hour instead of seven, but the principle there was that, if we can really reach workers and help organize – and not organize them, but organize together – I think that’s what’s really going to change things. I mean, we can sit here and say, “living wage for all, living wage is a moral value” and get some businesses to sign on to the living wage business thing, which is great and everything, but it’s really going to be the workers standing up.
BH: Do you think it’s important that students have a role in that? There isn’t a very high consciousness, especially at Ithaca, about poverty locally.
PM: I would say it’s important. Probably the workers who are definitely not making a living wage at IC, for example, would be the Sodexho cafeteria workers. And IC basically would say that it’s not their responsibility, [because] it’s a private contractor, but that’s ridiculous. I mean IC could put pressure on Sodexho, but IC’s not going to do that unless they get pressure from the students. It’s a question for all of us. How do we develop consciousness around what we consume and how it comes to us? I mean, I think about that. How is this produced, and how much money are the people making who are providing this for me? I actually do see, relatively speaking, that we have a lot more engagement at the Workers’ Center of students from IC than Cornell. I don’t know if you can say this is true across the board, but there are more students from IC than Cornell, and Cornell is so much bigger. Cornell does have a very active labor group, but they tend to work on more world issues than local issues.
BH: Do you want to talk a little bit about the seasonal Cornell workers and the campaign for unemployment insurance?
PM: Yeah, that’s an interesting situation. The Cornell workers – the cafeteria workers and the service workers – are for the most part unionized through the United Auto Workers, so they don’t make less than 11.50 an hour. We look at the living wage in two different ways: how much per hour and how much per year, so the living wage for one person is $19,100. That Cornell worker, if they’re working 9 months a year, is making $16,500 a year. So they’re making a good hourly wage relatively speaking, but over the year that doesn’t add up to a living wage. Reagan’s administration created these laws that employees of educational institutions are unable to collect unemployment insurance. And our campaign is basically that the state could override those if they wanted to.
BH: What’s the best way to get involved, either for students or people in the community?
PM: If somebody comes to me and wants to volunteer I really try to work with them and find out what their interests are. I think you really have to do that. I think, “What particular interest related to economic justice you have?” And we encourage people to follow their interests. What actually happens is that people tell us what we need to do, and it’s more of a network in a certain sense than it is just us doing stuff. But I would say the first step is just education, becoming aware of the issues and then figuring out ways to plug in. It’s a hard one to answer.
BH: When do you see the Workers’ Center accomplishing its goal? Would living wage ordinances help?
PM: Ordinances only affect businesses that are getting subsidies from the government. We couldn’t set a higher minimum wage in Tompkins County or Ithaca than the government has set [because of state law that precludes local action]. So, yeah, I can tell you it’s going to be a hard movement. I always have in my mind [that] the ultimate vision for us is that everyone in Tompkins County [would] make a living wage. The chance of that happening before I die – I mean that’s going to be hard, because we’re connected to [a] global economy that says otherwise, that says we need a certain amount of people to make low wages.
Andrew Friscano is a senior writing and politics double major who wishes he lived in Sweden. Email him at afrisic1[at]ithaca.edu.