Union Organizing is Community Organizing: Justice for Grocery Workers in Brooklyn
July 9, 2012 1:23 pm
Long hours and sub-minimum wages are pervasive at that cornerstone of NYC life: the 24-hour grocery store. Workers at Golden Farm grocery store in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn were recently awarded $100,000 in the settlement of a lawsuit over wage theft (employees stated they were paid $400 for 70-hour work weeks), and in May, workers held a fiercely contested union election, currently under review at the National Labor Relations Board. The organizing drive at Golden Farm and several other small NYC grocery stores is a model of how non-traditional worker organizing groups are working with established unions to mobilize community power to support workers.
The efforts at Golden Farm have been led by New York Communities for Change and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/ United Food and Commercial Workers Local 338. The campaign reached out to difficult-to-organize and often undocumented grocery workers in New York City with a bus tour in December of 2010. Since the campaign began, representatives have met with 300 workers, organized multiple rallies, successfully organized two grocery stores, and pushed for new legislation mandating paid sick days. The public interest law firm Advocates for Justice filed class-action lawsuits resulting in six-figure settlements.
The campaign against Golden Farm also hit Golden Farm’s adversarial owner Sonny Kim where it hurts, with a February 2012 rally turning 600 potential customers away from the store and reducing business by 60-70 percent. (Owner Sonny Kim remains unfazed, attempting to juke the stats at the recent union election by having store management and his wife vote against the union.) A decision on the election from the NLRB is imminent, and should the NLRB decision go in favor of the workers, approximately 20 workers will join the RWDSU/UFCW and earn the right to collective bargaining.
The support of NYCC and the unions couldn’t have come at a better time for Golden Farm workers. Overtime and wage and hour violations are prevalent at the community grocery, and the clear violations forced Mr. Kim to settle the aforementioned 2011 class action lawsuit. Prior to the election, Mr. Kim forced employees to meet with an anti-union consultant.
As has been demonstrated by recent forced labor allegations against Walmart supplier C.J.’s Seafood and by horrible conditions for housekeepers at Hyatt Hotels, immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to wage theft, overtime violations and other abusive working practices. Wage and hour violations are also extremely common for grocery workers and other low-wage employees — Crain’s New York Business reports: “Wage theft costs more than 317,000 low-wage workers in the city $18.4 million per week….The workers lose almost 15% of their earnings due to labor violations—$58 each per week, or $3,016 every year, according to the group. Minimum wage violations are particularly prevalent in grocery stores, the study showed.”
The grocery worker campaign has masterfully combined traditional worker organizing, employment class action lawsuits, and legislation pushed with rallies, vigils and boycotts. These actions and their attendant publicity will help undocumented workers, increase union membership, and encourage ethical consumerism. Kevin Lynch, President of Local 338, speaks on the power of union and communities working together: “By combining the strength of the union and labor laws with a community base, the employer has to realize he can’t just treat these guys poorly or it’s going to blow up in his own backyard.”
Kensington resident Brian Pickett writes beautifully on the less tangible effect of the organizing efforts for Labor Notes: “There is also something else at stake. The campaign has brought many people in the neighborhood out of our houses and into the street (and each others’ homes)….For many of us, workers and community members alike, this campaign has become a way of working together to break down the class boundaries that often divide us. At a recent meeting, one worker thanked supporters for simply saying hello to him as they walk by the store, noting that before this campaign he often felt invisible.”
Image from here