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A law that bars New York City from purchasing uniforms manufactured in sweatshops is invalid because it violates the separation-of-powers doctrine of the City Charter, a Manhattan judge has ruled. Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Stallman found last week that while the 2001 law was passed by the City Council with good intentions, it impermissibly empowered the comptroller at the expense of the mayor when it came to authorizing municipal contracts for items like police and firefighter uniforms. “New York has long recognized that sweatshops and other oppressive working conditions are incompatible with a humane and healthy society,” Stallman wrote in City of New York v. Council, 405082/01. “Fair labor standards remain an important, continuing goal. However, that end does not justify an impermissible means.” Recently, a 2003 City Council law governing welfare was struck down on similar grounds. Both that ruling and Stallman’s stress that the City Council cannot limit mayoral authority derived from state law or the City Charter without a voter referendum (NYLJ, Nov. 26, 2004). The sweatshop law, known as Local 20, was passed by the council in April 2001 over the veto of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The law barred the city from purchasing apparel or textiles from an entity other than a “responsible manufacturer,” according to Stallman’s ruling. Under the law, a responsible manufacturer is one that pays a non-poverty wage and does not hire any subcontractors that violate the law’s provisions. A non-poverty wage is defined as salary and benefits equivalent to $8.75 an hour, $7.50 of which must be in hourly salary. The law also requires that subcontractors outside the United States must pay their employees “a comparable nationwide wage and benefit level, adjusted to reflect that country’s level of economic development … in order to raise a family of three out of poverty.” The law gave the city comptroller authority to adjust the “non-poverty” wage over time, monitor garment contracts and make reports to the mayor and the City Council. The comptroller was also required to determine when contractors had violated the law and, if necessary, punish them. In September 2001, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council agreed to stay enforcement of the law until litigation over it was resolved. After extended settlement talks and an extensive briefing schedule, Stallman received final legal papers in May. “By passing contracting requirements that impinged on the mayor’s power and conflicted with state law, the City Council overstepped its legal bounds,” said Assistant Corporation Counsel John Becker. Assistant Corporation Counsels Spencer Fisher and Judson Vickers also litigated the case. The City Council was unable to comment before press time. The counsel was represented by in-house attorney Tisha Jackson and Eric F. Lane of Hofstra University School of Law.

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