Working In These Times
Two And a Half Years Later, NYC Workers Win Wage-Theft Case
After an intense two-year struggle, a federal bankruptcy court approved on Tuesday a $340,000 settlement to 23 workers at Wild Edibles—New York City’s leading seafood provider.
Employees at Wild Edibles alleged that management retaliated against individuals who were demanding overtime and back pay. “There was a lot intimidation,” says Raymundo Lara Molina, a former Wild Edibles employee. "Wild Edibles filed a court case, suing us for $4.5 million, alleging this was the money they were losing because of our campaign.”
The company alleged that the workers' campaign amounted to a conspiracy to commit extortion, but all charges against workers were dismissed.
In August 2007, workers demanded overtime wages owed to them by the seafood distributor, with support from members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Brandworkers International, a nonprofit dedicated to labor rights in the food service industry, as well as many other New York-based organizations. Scores of city restaurants ended up boycotting Wild Edibles.
“We received support from a diverse array of community groups and that gave us a big boost over a long and protracted campaign,” says Daniel Gross, a Brandworkers International organizer.
A founding director of Brandworkers International, Gross was one of the initial organizer of the Starbucks Workers Union, an IWW initiative to improve labor conditions for employees at the coffee chain.
In their pickets of the business, diverse organizations came out to support them, from activist Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, to Pastor Mansfield of the Judson Memorial church. The campaign also attracted support of New York City Council Member Eric N. Gioia, a district where Wild Edibles operates.
Community support proved to be decisive, with more than 75 New York restaurants boycotting the seafood distributor. In July of 2008, the company was forced to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but continues to operate.
The company refused to comment on the campaign.
Along with the boycott, the workers executed several legal initiatives with the help of Brandworkers and the IWW. Brandworkers helped the employees to file a class-action lawsuit against Wild Edibles in September of 2007 for not paying these workers overtime. In October of 2008, the Industrial Workers of the World filed the third in a series charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging violations of the workers’ protected and concerted activity.
The legal tactics engaged by Wild Edible’s worker’s were successful. with two of the workers regaining their job and others choosing to find employment elsewhere. The settlement awards $340,000 to 23 workers—the majority of the money being directed for unpaid back wages— with $137,000 of the total allotted for distress caused by the management. Included in this settlement are provisions guaranteeing protection for future collective actions taken by the workers.
Despite the community support and successful court challenges, Gross believes that the real success lies with employees of Wild Edibles.
“Without a doubt, the decisive factor in the victory was the resolve of the workers, their determination never wavered,” Gross says.