Action Pays Off for Chicago Butcher Charging Wage Theft

Kari Lydersen

Protesters outside a Chicago grocery store demand wages due a local butcher.

Miguel Brito began working at a family-owned grocery store in a diverse immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s north side about 16 years ago, shortly after coming from Mexico, since his family members lived in a building owned by the same family that owned the store.

I started doing different jobs for them and then they asked if I wanted to work there,” said Brito, 40, who was a butcher at Dona Mari’s 2 in the Albany Park neighborhood.

But over time the situation went from one of trust and convenience to frustration and anger for Brito, as he says he has been paid less than minimum wage — only about $5 an hour — for much of his 16 years there, including much overtime. He figures he is owed about $50,000 if he had been paid in accordance with labor law.

I felt deceived. It was an injustice,” said Brito. But it’s so hard to find other work.”

As often detailed on this blog, wage theft and other types of mistreatment are common experiences for immigrant workers — so common that, like Brito, many don’t bother leaving exploitative situations and looking for other jobs. Brito’s wife had similar problems at a Laundromat where she worked, and she ended up coming into contact with Arise Chicago, a workers center affiliated with Interfaith Worker Justice that helps workers (especially immigrant workers and others in vulnerable positions) fight for their rights and wages.

On August 1, Arise Chicago rallied about 25 people to protest outside Dona Mari’s 2, attracting local and Spanish-language news coverage and surprising the owners, according to Brito.

Now the owners are negotiating with Brito and workers center organizers and are offering to pay Brito about half of what he had demanded. Brito has decided to decline the offer and plans to sue the owners, according to Adam Kader, Arise Chicago’s workers center director. Brito said there are also problems with discrimination and other issues at Dona Mari’s 2 which he hopes will be addressed through involvement of the workers center, where he is now part of the mesa directiva, or worker leadership.

Arise Chicago organizer (and Working In These Times contributor) Micah Uetricht described the action:

Neighbors were no doubt unaccustomed to pickets and bullhorn-amplified chants on their block — particularly when those protesters are brandishing giant fake meat cleavers reading Stop Chopping Wages” — and many came over to discuss why Arise was protesting the store. Dona Mari’s 2, for its part, immediately locked its door when protesters arrived; employees inside refused to speak to members of the media who requested interviews (though one did come to the door as the protest was winding down to flip his middle finger at us).

Though the offer is so far much less than Brito says he deserves, he considers the ongoing campaign a victory. He said his experience has been a lesson that you have to fight injustices and just keep going.”

Immigrant workers often suffer wage theft and other abuses while employed for major corporations or subcontractors hired by major corporations. But wage theft is also often an issue at businesses including restaurants and stores owned by immigrant families, and such situations can often be much harder to address because these institutions are sometimes part of the same tight-knit communities as the employees. Micah Uetricht, who blogged that further actions outside Dona Mari’s 2 could be forthcoming, comments on this aspect of the protest:

Dona Mari’s 2 is a small store that is no doubt an important part of its surrounding community — many Albany Park residents depend on the store for groceries and other basic needs. But paying workers the minimum wage is a basic requirement of any employer, no matter the business’s size. The community members we talked to on Monday understood this, and many expressed their support for Miguel’s struggle. It’s easy to imagine the store’s image suffering greatly in the community if its owners continue to refuse to pay their former worker what he is owed.

This article was updated 8/15/2011 at 12:40 p.m.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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