As Governor George Pataki takes steps to provide compensation to workers injured in the World Trade Center attacks, a coalition of grassroots labor groups last week took New York State to international court, charging that a backlog of more than 100,000 workers comp cases puts the Empire State in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
This lawsuit marks the first time anyone in the United States has used the labor rights provision of the 1994 treaty, called North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, to claim such compensation violations. The agreement explicitly forbids unnecessary delays in compensation claim processing
“We’ll use any means necessary to get justice, and international law is as good as the others,” said attorney Sameer Ashar of the New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic, who is representing the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Workers Awaaz, Asociacion Tepeyac and 13 individual workers. Ashar filed the suit last Wednesday in Mexico City against Pataki, Workers Compensation Board Chair Robert Snashall and the WCB itself.
The case alleges that the WCB’s case processing is needlessly slow, leaving some injured workers waiting eight or nine years for benefits that have yet to arrive. In fact, one–architect Mike Rapp–was hurt in the 1993 Trade Center bombing, and says he has yet to receive his full compensation.
In its defense, the state says it is doing all it can to move things through. “We try to resolve cases as soon as possible,” said John Sullivan, spokesperson for the WCB, noting that in 2000, New York’s board opened and closed more than 280,000 cases–the largest annual total in its 87-year history. After September 11, the governor suspended the 30-day period for reporting work-related injuries for Trade Center victims, and stopped requiring that family members present death certificates to open workers compensation claims.
While they appreciate these efforts, the complainants say it does not change the fact that the board has a backlog of more than 100,000 claims. “The Workers Compensation Board is seemingly making it easier, but people we work with still haven’t gotten any benefits,” said Michael Lalan, staff organizer with the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, who in the past has pushed the issue with Snashall and State Senator Nicholas Spano, chair of the Senate labor committee.
Whether this untested tactic will work remains to be seen. “There is no legal track record for this type of case, but using international pressure has proven to be very effective,” said Daisy Pitkin, national co-director of the Washington-based Campaign for Labor Rights.
For now, the Mexican National Administrative Office has 90 days to determine if it holds jurisdiction over the claims and to consider various enforcement steps. If successful, said Ashar, the suit could mandate public hearings in New York, consultations between the United States and Mexico and fines levied against the United States.