Ithaca, N.Y. – Pete Meyers disagreed with the United States’ foreign policy, so he stopped paying taxes for 21 years.
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When a 1989 massacre by the U.S.-supplied Salvadoran Army in El Salvador left eight scholars, priests and domestic workers dead, Meyers decided that he no longer wanted anything to do with what he called the U.S.’s “imperialistic project.”
“I had done my share of letter-writing and protesting,” Meyers wrote in an April 1994 op-ed to the South Bend Tribune. “[B]ut I began thinking, ‘What’s the point if I’m still helping to fund what I think is so wrong?’”
Six years later, he moved to Ithaca. Meyers, who now pays taxes, has since spent fifteen years shaping the lives of thousands of workers in Tompkins County, becoming one of the area’s best-known labor advocates and fiercest opponents of unjust labor practices.
In 2006, Meyers founded the Tompkins County Workers’ Center — a workers’ rights organization that, to this day, has won $1.3 million in wage theft judgments against employers that fail to pay overtime, don’t pay workers for their hours, or pay below the minimum wage. (That sum has not been paid out in its entirety, though, Meyers said.)
“I think he’s somebody that really walks the walk,” said Common Council member Seph Murtagh of Meyers. “He’s committed his life to this. He believes it passionately … I think it’s a pretty noble thing.”
A South Bend, Indiana, native, Meyers moved to Ithaca in 2000 and started working as a mentor for a Catholic Charities’ “welfare-to-work” program.
The program was started to help families and individuals cope after President Clinton signed a welfare reform bill in 1996 that placed a five-year lifetime limit on recipients of federal assistance and required recipients to work after receiving benefits for two years.
Meyers would work with people – “oftentimes children, oftentimes single mothers with children” – to develop a plan with goals that helped them become self-sufficient. When he realized that they often could only find minimum wage jobs, he decided to found the “Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition” in 2003.
He focused his efforts on teachers’ aides and teachers’ assistants who were, in Tompkins County, making about $6.70 an hour, according to Meyers. After a year-and-a-half, a 500-person rally and march through downtown Ithaca, and a petition with 2,000 signatures, Meyers’ campaign eventually succeeded in securing a living wage — $9.50 an hour – for them.
“The idea was: everyone should be making a living wage in Tompkins County,” Meyers said. “How are we going to do that?”
“We realized we needed to get more workers,” he said, donned in a black tank-top outside of Ithaca’s City Hall, feet away from his office that is adjacent to Autumn Leaves Bookstore.
So, Meyers said, he started a workers’ rights hotline and an immigrants’ rights center.
“In 2006, we realized we were doing more than just the living wage,” he said. “We had the workers’ rights hotline, the immigrants’ rights center … we changed our name to the Workers’ Center and started the first living wage certification program in the country.”
That program, which now certifies 101 public, private, and nonprofit organizations, recognizes employers that pay a “living wage” to their employees – currently $14.34 an hour in Tompkins County.
“It just seems like the world is unfair in terms of how many workers are treated in the workplace and not paid enough,” Meyers said. “I put in my all to change that dynamic locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally.”
‘I am somebody! I am somebody!’
Growing up in South Bend, Meyers’ parents were opponents of the Vietnam War and volunteered as “housing testers” – people who built cases against landlords that discriminated against minorities when renting out homes and apartments.
“Let’s say you’re a black person, I’m a white person,” Meyers told me. “[A landlord] doesn’t let you in for whatever reason, so, they find someone of similar economic background [to inquire about the home.]”
“If I get in, and you didn’t, then that’s part of the evidence that they’re discriminating,” he said.
As a child, Meyers lived about two miles from the University of Notre Dame and spent time at “all the football games, and all the basketball games.”
As a teenager, Meyers went to Park Point College in Pittsburgh, Pa. He had wanted to become a sports broadcaster until he took a psychology class during his senior year. “It was so, so good,” he said of the class.
That class inspired Meyers to abandon his broadcasting dreams and get what he called an “unusual” Master’s Degree in Existential Phenomenology Psychology from Duquesne University, also located in Pittsburgh.
At age 23, after graduating, Meyers moved to Coney Island to take a job as a drug counselor in a vocational high school, “which was pretty hardcore,” he said.
“It was mostly black and Latino kids, and I’m just, like, this white kid from Indiana. I grew up in a very impoverished area, but it was 100,000 [people]; it wasn’t 5 million,” he said.
“It just woke me up to racism and classism, big time.”
One of his most memorable moments during his four years at William E. Grady Technical Vocational High School, Meyers recalled, was when he scheduled a pastor and his wife to talk to his students about drug abuse for eight periods in the school’s auditorium.
“Every single kid had to come,” he said. “Their whole schtick was ‘it’s all about self-esteem,’ which was my attitude. It’s not ‘say no to drugs,’ it’s about helping kids believe in themselves.”
The pastors had students echo a poem often-cited by Rev. Jesse Jackson, “I Am — Somebody,” written by Atlanta civil rights activist Rev. William Holmes Borders.
“One of Jesse Jackson’s big things was standing up and yelling ‘I am somebody! I am somebody!,’ so we had all the kids doing this – even the Italian kids,” he said. “It was fabulous.”
At the end of the day, the principal of the school called Meyers over to talk. “You can’t be doing this,” he recalled her telling him.
“She was scared,” he said.
In 1985, Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution was still in full-effect. After violently ousting a U.S.-backed dictator in the late 1970s, the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front fought a decade-spanning war against the “Contras,” who were (secretly) backed by the Reagan Administration.
That year, Meyers travelled to Nicaragua with about twenty other young people from the U.S and worked for a month on a coffee farm, picking coffee.
“There was like 500 people” at the Central American farm, Meyers recalled. “All Nicaraguans. People were walking around with machine guns because they didn’t know if the farm was going to be attacked.”
The farm eventually was attacked and people were killed shortly after Meyers left Nicaragua, he said.
The trip was a defining moment for Meyers: “I was learning about the racism historically in this county – the colonialism – and we’re doing it all over the world.”
“It was messed up; it was wrong. I didn’t want my money being used for this,” Meyers said.
When he returned to the U.S., Meyers started a job as a Produce Manager at a co-op in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Meyers was making twelve dollars an hour while his subordinates were making only $5.15.
“At the time I was aspiring to make it a worker-owned collective,” he said. “So, I had a friend who was the president of the board of the co-op … he was a computer geek, and he ran numbers.”
Meyers asked his friend to come up with a way for him to redistribute his wages to lower-paid workers. “He ran a program, so I knew how much to give. And I gave people cash,” he said. “Every week.”
In 1993, Meyers moved back to South Bend to take a job as director of a joint South Bend-University of Notre Dame project: the Readmobile.
“(Notre Dame and South Bend’s) thesis was that, and I imagine this to be true, if a kid is not reading by third grade, he or she is probably not going to be reading much in their lives,” he explained.
“The idea was: ‘What role could a library play in changing that around?’”
Meyers, whose father was a library director, seemed well-equipped for the job.
He was placed in charge of a “Readmobile” program, where a vehicle would go school-to-school to get kids excited about reading. “Puppet shows, all that stuff,” he said.
When Meyers was tasked with hiring an assistant, the applicant pool was narrowed down to two people: a white male who worked in a bookstore that had a PhD, but had no experience with kids; and a black man with an Associate’s Degree who worked full-time in the schools the Readmobile was going to.
“I thought the black guy was more qualified. He had all the qualifications for the job – he had actually worked in the schools; he had a relationship with students and teachers; and he was of the race that most of these kids we’d be appealing to,” Meyers said. (He estimates that 80% of the students he’d be talking to were black and Latino.)
“It actually makes a difference to kids of color,” Meyers went on. “If you’re black or Latino, you’re not seeing many people of your race teaching.”
The library disagreed with his decision to hire the man, Meyers says.
Meyers told them that the library could have a discrimination suit on their hands if they didn’t hire him. They fired Meyers at that moment.
“They did have a discrimination suit,” Meyers told me. “So, I was right,” he added with a shrug.
Meyers and the man took the suit to the Human Rights Commission; they found in Meyers’ favor. The library then sued the Human Rights Commission, so Meyers and the man decided to take the case to federal court.
The man eventually decided to settle out-of-court, but Meyers went to a weeklong trial. “Before an all-white, rural Indiana jury, I lost the case,” he said.
“It was a really important part of my life,” he added.
Meyers moved to Ithaca in 2000 shortly after the case concluded and began advocating for a living wage for workers in Tompkins County.
A notable campaign in 2011 forced Sodexo, which services Ithaca College’s dining halls, to pay a living wage to all of their food service workers on-campus — $11.11 an hour, at the time.
“Ithaca College was saying ‘we contract with them; we don’t have responsibility for their wages,’” Meyers said. (Ithaca College pledged to pay all employees a “living wage.”)
“The Workers’ Center played a huge role,” Councilman Murtagh said of the Sodexo campaign.
Living wage, minimum wage
For now, Meyers is laser-focused on trying to make the minimum wage in Tompkins County a living wage. “Our angle on this is to get the County Legislature to pass it, and convince Cuomo and the State to approve it,” he said.
“It will come to fruition,” he confidently proclaimed.
“This is a huge campaign … [Mayor] Svante Myrick has pledged his support on this. He’s not a member of the County Legislature, but he carries a big bully pulpit,” he said, moments before Myrick walked over to discuss the campaign with Meyers in front of City Hall.
After a brief chat, Myrick departed towards the Commons.
“Having Svante on this (campaign) is huge,” Meyers told me afterwards with a grin. “You know, this is my life right now.”
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