Dec. 2 2009 12:00 AM

A resource for employees wronged by employers is gaining steam in Lansing


It was an under-the-radar action taken by the Centro Obrero (which translates to “workers’ center”) in Detroit that inspired the Lansing Workers’ Center. Earlier this year, Centro Obrero took up the case of 40 workers who were allegedly owed $30,000 in back wages by a landscaping company. (The name of the company is not being used because the veracity of the story could not be verified.)

Volunteers at Centro Obrero organized the 40 workers to negotiate with their employer to be paid for the back wages. The owners of the landscaping company, however, did not respond. So, the workers and Centro Obrero volunteers went to several apartment complexes for which the company did work and handed out fliers spreading information about the back wages.

Within two hours of the fliering action, the company’s bosses agreed to set up a payment plan to pay the back wages.

Open since Labor Day, the Lansing Workers’ Center, located in the Northstar Center on Lathrop Street, is aiming to help Lansingarea workers with labor issues ranging from unpaid overtime, to outright wage theft.

The center has received numerous inquiries and has three open cases that it is working on. The center has reached out to the community through fliers, word of mouth, and newspaper advertisements. Right now, there are about 12 workers’ center volunteers helping employees with grievances, some of whom are part of the Northstar Center and Michigan People’s Action, a homeless advocacy group.

“It’s about challenging this problem and not about intimidating or a making a threat,” workers’ center volunteer David Mitchell said. “It’s showing that there are enough people paying attention that you need to be paying people when you owe them money. I think that’s s a pretty basic concept.”

Mitchell could not talk in specifics about the three open cases, but he said the center has met with employees who work for Internet companies, bakeries, in the construction trades, and even one from a governmental agency. Some are already covered under a labor union.

“In trying to find a stereotype for workers we’re talking to, there is none,” Mitchell said. “It’s cutting across classes.”

When a potential client comes to the workers’ center, volunteers evaluate the case to determine whether an employee is a victim of wage theft or other labor violation. If so, workers’ center volunteers help the employee make contact with their employer and try to set up a meeting to discuss the issue. Volunteers also assist the employee in filing a claim with the state.

If an employer does not respond to requests to settle the matter, the workers’ center could resort to action like in the case of the landscaping company. Though, Mitchell said none of the Lansing cases have reached that point.

“It’s not always nice, but it certainly can be respectful,” Mitchell said of demonstrations against employers. “It’s about challenging this problem and not about intimidating or making a threat.”

For the workers’ center to take up a case, complainants are asked to become members of the center, which costs $4 per month, or $40 for a year; there are scholarships available for those can’t afford membership.

Mike Kolhoff, a workers’ center volunteer and employee at Lansing Community College, became interested in creating a workers’ center in Lansing this summer because of the financial collapse. He contacted the Northstar Center and found that his idea was already brewing.

So far, his experiences have been mixed. In contacting one employer about a wage theft complaint, he said, they replied that they did not want to deal with it because a union covered the employee. Some employers have ignored attempts at communication. He said that six to seven employees have come to the workers’ center with complaints, but some have dropped out, which he blames on employees feeling conditioned to take workplace abuse.

Kolhoff said news of the workers’ center is spreading rapidly. Just last Tuesday at the weekly workers’ center meeting, a man who worked for a landscaping company came in to request help. The man, who is from Mexico, complained that in doing landscaping work for a local restaurant, he was paid in food and nothing else. The “informal economy” — where workers are undocumented — is a tough area, because it can be hard to track what an employee was supposed to be paid.

“We took his information, and came up with a plan of action,” Kolhoff said.

Word of the workers’ center will continue to be spread by word of mouth and fliering, Mitchell said. Kolhoff said that the center has advertised at Cooley Law School for students who may be interested in working on labor issues.

“With the workers’ center, we can take a very specific thing and build momentum around it,” Mitchell said. “That’s not a solution to all of these bigger problems, but having a tangible way to address one of the problems people are facing, on our own, is a major reason why the workers’ center is important and has a lot of potential.”