Northampton City Council OKs resolution in support of labor laws

  • Residents spoke overwhelmingly in favor of wage compliance measures during a public comment period on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.  —Amanda Drane

  • Northampton labor attorney Jocelyn Jones, formerly the head of the Fair Labor Division of the Attorney General’s Office, spoke in favor of wage compliance measures during a City Council meeting on Jan. 19, 2017.  —Amanda Drane

  • City Councilor Maureen Carney speaks to wage compliance measures she co-sponsored during a heated moment on council floor on Jan. 19, 2017.  —Amanda Drane

@amandadrane
Published: 1/20/2017 12:27:19 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Council Chambers were packed with union leaders, workers and advocates on Thursday as the City Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing its commitment to reinforcing existing labor laws.

The council also unanimously approved a measure that would require some employers to certify their compliance with those laws. Both the resolution and the order require a second vote during at the City Council’s Feb. 2 meeting before they are finalized.

Though many of the workers and advocates in the room spoke to issues in the hospitality and construction industries, the council’s order does not apply to those businesses. Instead, the order pertains to businesses under its jurisdiction — storage facilities, firework suppliers, secondhand dealers, taxis and bowling and billiards among them.

The resolution has “no teeth,” but it officially requests that the License Commission and the Community Preservation Committee adopt policies similar to the order, which would affect city businesses more broadly.

Additionally, the mayor plans to bring an executive order to the council that would require businesses the city buys goods from — and provides tax incentives for — to certify their compliance with labor laws.

People at the meeting spoke overwhelmingly in favor of the measures during a public comment period. Tensions ran high throughout the discussion.

Gabriella della Croce, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, asked that councilors act swiftly to address “wage theft.”

“This is an epidemic that is doing really serious damage to workers across the country,” she said. “We see a real need for this kind of legislation in Northampton.”

The fact the votes took place on the eve of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration was not lost on the room.

“If you do nothing, history will judge you,” said workers center organizer Diana Sierra, her voice breaking. “I will judge you.”

Business owner John Rhoades took issue with the process leading up to the measures, which began with a report issued last March by the workers center and the University of Massachusetts Labor Center. He criticized the report presented in subcommittee, calling it “ludicrous,” and said the city’s economy is stagnant at best.

“I don't have a problem with the resolution,” he said, calling himself “a compliant restaurateur.” “I have a problem with the process.”

Rhoades also criticized Councilors Maureen Carney and Alisa Klein, who co-sponsored the measures, for marching with workers seeking to unionize against the Hotel Northampton — an act for which Packard’s owner Bob McGovern called for the councilors’ resignations.

Councilor Marianne LaBarge expressed concern for business owners, saying some felt “micromanaged.”

“The transparency is extremely important,” she said.

Councilor David Murphy said it was important to note the measures only provide nominal support for workers, given the council’s limited authority over labor issues.

“We can’t make the License Commission do anything — there’s no force of law to this. This is our spiritual support, but not much more than that,” he said. “Don’t misunderstand that there’s really any teeth to this. When it comes to employers, we really don’t have any authority.”

Still, council President Bill Dwight said it’s important the council do what it can, especially given his expectation that the Trump administration will be of little help as far as labor law compliance is concerned.

“This is where we walk the talk,” he said. “Because it’s not going to happen at the federal level.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.




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