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On the march for workers’ rights

At the Labor Day parade in South Buffalo on Monday, marching bands, baton twirlers and Irish dancers put on a good show, and the children who lined Abbott Road were kept occupied, scrambling for candy thrown from slow-moving vehicles.

But under a hot sun, the much more serious issues of workers’ rights, wage disparities and corporate responsibility loomed large, as members of labor unions, politicians and protesters spoke out on current threats to workers.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman spoke of an “epidemic” of wage theft, which has resulted in criminal prosecution of employers, and encouraged workers to keep speaking up.

“We’re not going to allow dishonest employers to line their pockets by cheating their employees,” he said during remarks to reporters before the parade.

Criminal convictions have been obtained in cases involving 16 employers, and some were sentenced to time in jail since Schneiderman took office in 2011.

His office also has returned $17 million to workers in restitution and recovered $2 million in restitution and penalties for the state, he said.

In Western New York, that includes $40,000 that was returned to Domino’s employees.

Seven Domino’s pizza franchisees, who collectively own 26 stores across the state, committed several violations, including not paying drivers enough, and not paying overtime.

Schneiderman also noted cases his office brought to protect workers who alerted authorities to problems in their workplaces.

Schneiderman is running for re-election against Republican John P. Cahill, who was in town last week.

Like Schneiderman, many politicians marched, especially those involved in hot primary contests, which will be decided Sept. 9.

Labor leader Richard Lipsitz said the local economy is improving, citing jobs destined for RiverBend – the future site of solar panel manufacturing, – the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and new development downtown.

“There’s a lot of good things happening in the economy,” said Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. “You won’t hear me say there aren’t. But we have to make sure that economic development satisfies and actually works for ordinary people, that’s our job.”

Meanwhile, at the Burger King on Seneca Street, near the end of the parade route, about 15 protesters gathered to call for an increase in the wages paid to fast-food workers and to criticize the company for merging with Canada-based Tim Hortons as a way to avoid paying U.S. taxes on foreign income.

“We think this shows how far the 1 percent will go to avoid paying taxes,” said protester Andy Reynolds of the Coalition for Economic Justice.

Protesters held up signs that said, “It’s good to be King” and “Low pay is not OK.”

“Families need to support themselves on the wage that they earn,” said Kirk Laubenstein, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice. He highlighted Burger King’s decision to seek tax benefits by moving to Canada, while many fast-food workers seek public assistance because they cannot obtain health care or other necessities.

During the parade, April Wilcox, of North Tonawanda, was huddled with her two daughters under the overhang of a store to get out of the hot sun.

In her job, Wilcox, 32, helps people with disabilities find meaningful work, something that everyone should have the opportunity to do, she said.

“It provides a life of dignity,” Wilcox said.