LAWYERS BACK-SLAPP NYC BIZ

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Garment workers and their advocates recently won the final chapter in a six-year war against a clothing manufacturer–thanks to 1997 law that prevents businesses from legally intimidating people who publicly oppose them.

Street Beat Sportswear, Inc became the target of a vigorous anti-sweatshop campaign in 1998. A coalition of local garment workers and pro-labor groups, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, sued the manufacturer and its Brooklyn factory for labor law violations: Workers in the firm’s Hua Great Procetech factory often put in more than a hundred hours a week, according to AALDEF’s Ken Kimerling. Laborers who asked for time off would be turned down, then fired. Street Beat retaliated five months later with a $75 million lawsuit, claiming that the workers and their advocates were interfering with their business, and that their publicity campaigns and rallies had caused two of the company’s retailers to stop buying Street Beat goods.

The labor struggles were settled in 1999, when Street Beat dropped its suit against the workers and agreed to pay them $285,000. But the case against the advocates was still pending until a state Supreme Court judge dismissed the charges four months later, calling the case an illegal SLAPP–a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. This type of lawsuit is an effective way to harass and silence pesky critics, but usually has little legal merit. The judge also ordered Street Beat to pay the advocates legal fees, but the company appealed.

Earlier this month, Street Beat finally settled, agreeing to pay the advocates $85,000 to cover legal expenses. “This decision is an important victory in civil liberties for all of New York,” says Mike Wishnie, an NYU law professor who provided legal support to the workers. “Street Beat responded not by defending themselves, but by intimidating the workers. Not only did the judges recognize this, but the plaintiffs settled the case, they agreed to pay, indirectly saying they know they did something wrong.”

The settlement shows other manufacturers that they can’t scare workers away just because they don’t have a lot of money, says anti-sweatshop activist Karah Newton. It also shows retailers that they need to watch who they’re doing business with, says Kristian Bello, one of the project organizers named in the case. “The next logical step is to hold the retailers accountable for operating business with sweatshops.”