January 29, 2004
Workers Owe Win to Bet Tzedek
Bet Tzedek has won a significant victory for low-paid Latino and Asian garment workers, successors to the Jewish immigrants who labored in sweatshops a century ago. The settlement, reached by the free legal counseling service, is somewhat technical, but is likely to have a major impact on California's $22 billion apparel industry, employing 140,000 workers.
In essence, a large-scale retailer agreed in the settlement that it bears a responsibility if one of its contractors, who actually make the clothing, underpays its workers.
The case pitted four Latina workers, represented by Bet Tzedek, against Wet Seal, an Orange County-based company with 619 stores in 47 states selling so-called private label apparel aimed at the hip preteen and teen girls market. The workers were employed by one of the 800 small sewing and manufacturing contractors used by Wet Seal around the country. For several years, the women charged, they worked about 68 hours a week for D.T. Sewing and were never paid more for regular and overtime work than $4 an hour. The California minimum hourly wage is $6.75.
After the workers filed claims, under a new state law, against D.T. Sewing and Wet Seal, the state labor commissioner awarded the workers $240,000 for back pay and damages, of which Wet Seal's liability was $90,000. D.T. Sewing promptly went out of business without paying the workers, not an unusual tactic of the small shops, which typically employ 30-50 workers and are often undercapitalized and fly-by-night, said attorney Cassy Stubbs, who led the case as head of Bet Tzedek's employment rights project.
Wet Seal first appealed its $90,000 assessment to the courts, but last week decided to settle. In addition to the money for the workers, the company pledged to contribute $40,000 to Bet Tzedek's ongoing efforts on behalf of garment industry workers. From now on, "Wet Seal will not do business with manufacturers that treat their workers unfairly and unlawfully," said Peter D. Whitford, Wet Seal's recently appointed CEO.
"I think Wet Seal's action will make other retailers quite nervous and that they will fall in line," said Stubbs, who was joined by pro bono co-counsel Paul Chan.
Mitch Kamin, executive director of Bet Tzedek, said that "We will continue to be firmly committed to help the most vulnerable members of our population, who make our economy function and are so often exploited." -- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Spreading Local Activism
Some 200 young Jewish professionals filled five meeting rooms and one ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles New Leaders Project (NLP) on Jan. 25.
"I met a lot of smart, talented, engaged people who know that the best of Jewish tradition means that you don't just look out for your comfort and well-being, but you try to transform the community around you," said NLP 2004 graduate Eric Greene, also a vice president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. "Even in communities that are not predominantly Jewish, we still have a stake in caring about those communities and our collective futures."
The daylong event attempted to inspire interest in local activism, and was sponsored by the New Leaders Project Class of 2004, an adjunct program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. With money from the Saban Family Foundation and Jewish Community Foundation, the Sunday event included 10 panel discussions and a short graduation ceremony with certificates given to NLP graduates.
Jews make up only 6 percent of the City of Los Angeles' population, panelists said, but usually cast 18 percent of total votes in city elections. Yet faced with a general indifference to local politics, said Bruce Bialosky, Southern California of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Jewish voters instead will keep gravitating to larger issues such as Israel.
"We are now focusing back on our own self-interest," he said. "Without Israel, the Jewish people will not exist in the future."
"Life is more complicated for Jews now than it has ever been," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "There really is a distinctive Jewish political vision of American society and it's not captured entirely by either party."
The conference attracted six first- and second-generation Iranian Americans who are less tethered than their parents to distinctly Persian local Jewish life. "People our age, the younger ones who are just starting our leadership activity in the Jewish community, we're more likely to integrate," said Lida Tabibian, 26, a computer consultant.
Panel discussions on social services, transportation and race relations were less crowded than a well-attended dialogue on civil liberties. There, Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson and University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky criticized the federal anti-terrorist Patriot Act, which was defended by Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Luis Flores, chief division counsel for the Los Angeles FBI office.
Many panelists shared their inspiration to activism. Writer David Levinson created Temple Israel of Hollywood's "Big Sunday" volunteer day with 300 people in 1999; about 2,500 people are expected to volunteers this year at 70 local nonprofit agencies for this year's Big Sunday on May 2.
"Everybody has something to offer somebody else," he said. -- David Finnigan, Contributing Writer
It's a Wrap, Kid
Conservative men will be wrapped up a little more than usual this Sunday.
The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs is putting out posters and ads with slogans like "Get Into Leather" in hope of enticing men who don't usually wrap tefillin, let alone make it to morning minyan, to attend the fourth annual World Wide Wrap at participating Conservative synagogues on Feb. 1. This year the group has emphasized its youth outreach program, Dor V'Dor, and expanded its twining program, which links American Conservative synagogues with congregations in other countries to share ideas about making the mitzvah of tefillin more appealing.
At least 10 Southern California Conservative congregations have registered to participate in the Wrap, but more are expected to jump on board in the days leading up to the event. The Dor V'Dor program encourages Hebrew school students to attend the Wrap and asks that they bring along their parents, who may not have put on tefillin themselves in 20 or 30 years.
"What we're trying to do is to show that it's not that complex or uncomfortable," said Myles Simpson, Wrap committee member for the federation's western region and a member of Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. "And by encouraging someone to do it once, then maybe he'll do it again. And maybe if he does it, then he'll get his kids involved."
For information about the World Wide Wrap in your area, visit www.worldwidewrap.org or call (800) 288-3562. -- Adam Wills, Associate Editor