An NYU panel on the role of local government in enforcing workers rights focused attention on the power of unions and various levels of local and state government to collaborate on labor enforcement.
The event, which was organized by Terri Gerstein in her role as director of the newly created NYU Wagner Labor Initiative, featured Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, a panel of regulators and prosecutors known for their labor-focused approach
Gerstein came to the initiative with over 25 years of working on labor issues, with a focus on the role the government plays in advancing workers’ rights at the state and local levels. Gerstein said that she intends to focus on strengthening a network of government actors in her new role.
“A key part of my vision is to help build a really robust and resilient network of state and local government actors and offices that will protect workers’ rights and that are focused on workers’ rights,” she said.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison illustrated the role of collaboration between state government and unions by describing a case that his office recently brought against a Minnesota dairy farm for wage theft. The lawsuit his office filed alleged that a large dairy producer cheated its workers out of at least $3 million in wages, illegally charged rent for shoddy onsite housing and threatened its workers with violence.
Ellison said that the case stemmed from a tip he got from union organizers.
“Our relationship with some union members allowed the people who were being exploited this way to tell them,” Ellison said. “We had enough language proficiency so that the word got back and we ripen it into a case. But it starts with relationships.”
Bragg, who created the Manhattan DA’s first ever Worker Protection Unit, discussed the importance of making labor enforcement a priority for district attorneys. He said that criminal prosecutors often have a leg up in deterring wage theft in a way that civil enforcers often don’t because of the threat of higher penalties.
“I think this is the strength of a criminal prosecution. A lot of these folks price in paying the money back, but they do not price in the effect of the criminal prosecution,” Bragg said.
Additionally, Bragg joined a coalition of union advocates that passed a law that categorized wage theft as a form of “grand larceny” so that prosecutors across the state cna pursue wage theft against a group of workers as one cumulative count of larceny. He said the law was “really the product of just a phenomenal, labor and worker coalition that I was just happy to kind of stand with and be a part of.”