For anyone who still believes that racial discrimination on the job has been eliminated, the New York Public Employees Federation has a story to tell you. It shows discrimination still exists. It just takes a more invidious form.

The story begins in Manhattan, where the state Labor Department is planning to shut a call center for telephone claims. The center would move to Endicott, outside of Troy. The state agency claims the move would save money shifting the 250 jobs upstate where costs (and wages) are lower. Half of the threatened jobs are those of PEF members, state union President Roger Benson says.

If the move were strictly for savings, it would differ little from frequent phony corporate moves for the same financial reasons. But there’s a lot more involved.

Because, you see, most of the state Labor Department (DOL) workers from New York City who would have to move, or lose their jobs, are minorities. And most of their clients are in the city and its metro area, not upstate. And many of those clients are minorities too.

A number of the department’s clients don’t speak English very well. The city-based DOL workers are multilingual. The Endicott area is much less racially mixed than the Big Apple. The chance that any DOL workers hired from Endicott are able to fluently speak languages other than English is much less than if the call center stayed put.

Combine all these factors, Benson says, and the conclusion to draw is that there is more than a whiff of racial job discrimination in the move from Manhattan to Endicott.

Yet this is not the type of discrimination on the job that anti-discrimination laws cover. That problem didn’t stop the union from taking the state Labor Department to court. Their suit, charging racial discrimination on the job, was filed Aug. 2 in state Supreme Court in Manhattan. (Note: The State Supreme Court is actually the lowest level of New York’s court system.)

At a press conference outside the state offices before the union went to court, Benson called the call center move “ugly and reprehensible.” He said the center’s workers “have become unnecessary targets of the DOL. The majority of the employees are minorities who are being told they have to choose between their jobs and their communities. That is not a choice.”

“That is racial discrimination and it will not be tolerated.”

Why do I bring all this up? Because the New York State Department of Labor’s move of its call center highlights the invidious and insidious nature of racial discrimination on the job, despite all the laws against it. And the same can be said of discrimination by sex, sexual preference, previous servitude and, yes, union membership.

Substitute any anti-worker company you want for the words “New York State Department of Labor” in the story above — let’s say, “Wal-Mart.” Substitute “China” for “Endicott.” Substitute “women” or “unionists” for “minorities.”

The impact is the same. The discrimination is the same. And the result is the same: People lose jobs due to invidious discrimination, racism, sexism or anti-unionism. Yet laws can do little, right now, to stop such discrimination.

So what can we do? Let’s start by calling such moves what they are, be they racist, or sexist or anti-worker. Blow the horn, loudly, about what companies and agencies do to people’s lives and the subterfuges they use to get away with it.

One of the most powerful tools a worker has is to call “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Use it.

And if a private company is involved, then take the next step. Let’s put our money where our mouths are.

If a private firm acts like that, discriminating against workers on the basis of race, sex, servitude, sexual orientation or union membership, there is nothing — I repeat, nothing — to stop us from taking our dollars elsewhere and explaining our reasons.

After all, that, in so many words, is what Benson and the PEF did to the New York State Labor Department with their lawsuit and their press conference. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” they said — to get public pressure on the agency to reverse its stand.

I hope GOP Gov. George Pataki, who is rumored to be pondering a run for the White House in 2008, heeds those cries, realizes the discrimination his agency is undertaking, and stops it.

But with private firms that act as DOL has, that treat citizens of whatever race, creed, religion, color, sexual orientation or pro-union stand in the same discriminatory way, we can do much more: Raise holy hell. Air the moral issues. Then vote with our wallets and purses, and tell the country why.

Mark Gruenberg is a writer for Press Associates, Inc., news service.

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