NYC wage theft victory shows growing role of nonunion labor groups
Jesus Najera’s job at the Brooklyn grocery store Master Food, where he has worked since 2004, used to force him to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, with no overtime, for less than $4 an hour. (The minimum wage is currently $7.25.) Abuses of this magnitude are quite common in the low-pay, service sector, especially among the immigrant community.
It has been estimated that more than $30 billion is stolen from American workers every year. If the cases are fought at all, workers are usually able to reclaim some of their stolen wages, but not their jobs.
But the Master Store story is atypical. Najera and some of his co-workers fought back, with the help of New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a Brooklyn-based community advocacy organization, and Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store/United Food and Commercial Workers union. “Things were very, very bad,” Najera says. “But we started to organize in the store so they didn’t keep abusing us.”
Now, a little less than a year later, the workers have won back a significant amount of their stolen wages and secured a union contract specifying benefits and increased pay.
This innovative settlement, ratified by workers on October 31, is the result of a collaboration between NYCC and Local 338, which has many grocery worker members. In 2010, the local began canvassing neighborhoods across Brooklyn, talking to workers and trying to get them interested in the organization. In December they met a couple of the Master Food workers, and three months later the workers voted to join the RWDSU/UFCW local 338.
After negotiations with the employer broke down, they filed a lawsuit against the company in May. But instead of merely securing the stolen wages, they used the employer’s illegal actions and the staggering sums stolen as leverage. The amount owed to the workers was enough to bankrupt the business, but the workers agreed to settle for well below the total amount in exchange for continued employment under a union contract.
“There wasn’t much the employers could do because we were hitting them from both sides,” says Lucas Sanchez, an organizer with NYCC. “We had the workers organized in the union and we had the workers organized as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The employer tried to retaliate by cutting some hours, but we responded immediately. We had rallies, the support of local elected officials, and press coverage. There wasn’t much he could do except try to negotiate the best settlement possible.”
Negotiations ended last month, and the workers came away with $300,000 of the $500,000 claimed in back wages and, of course, the contract. (Najera personally won $15,000.) In addition to the standard minimum wage pay which they were cheated out of before, the workers will receive a raise of 35 cents an hour, followed by another 25 cents next year. Benefits include vacation, holiday, sick, personal and funeral days, and a guarantee that “the Employer shall not hire any new employee if said hiring results or would result in the reduction of any current employee’s hours of work.”
The new contract also includes grievance procedures to resolve issues that arise in the workplace. As much as the material gains, the union contract is important because it gives the workers protection from abuse or retaliation, especially important for low-wage workers. Few people realize that a union is basically the only sure way to protect a worker from employers who are legally allowed to fire-at-will, for any reason.
“It’s a complicated world out there, and being a union puts them on firm footing to analyze what’s going on around them,” says Kevin Lynch, former organizing director for Local 338 and an advisor to NYCC. “The fact that a boss can fire you because of the color of your hat comes as a shock to natives, but it isn’t a shock to immigrants, because they are often treated with total contempt on the job. What’s going to be a learning experience for them is that the boss can lo no longer do that — the confidence that comes with a written contract.”
The Master Food campaign wasn’t an isolated fight. It is part of a wider campaign orchestrated by NYCC, and several other lawsuits are pending against other employers with similar records of wage theft and other kinds of abuse. They hope to use the model organize other unjust, low-wage workplaces, including car washes and restaurants.
These industries have proved difficult for unions to organize through traditional means. Low-wage workers are often unaware of their rights and work in establishments with high turnover rates, making organizing drives difficult to sustain. Immigrant workforces present special challenges, including language barriers and fears of immigration authorities for those workers who do not have the proper documentation.
Because labor unions can be hesitant to invest scarce resources in such a risky organizing drive, workers’ centers and community groups have been low-income workers’ chief source of support and solidarity. While workers’ centers have experienced success winning back wages and educating workers, they largely haven’t been able to provide the long-term protections afforded by a union contract. But many of those within the workers’ center movement are expanding their efforts by working with unions. The NYCC model is just one example. In Chicago, the Arise Chicago workers’ center and the United Steelworkers are acting in concert to organize carwash employees who have long been cheated of their wages and their rights.
“Unions are not going to go after small workplaces, because they have to be resource efficient,” says Adam Kader, director of Arise Chicago, which is working on several union-organizing projects. “Workers centers can make it worth a unions’ while. If you partner with a workers center you’ll have an organized, militant, competent group of people to work with. And we have a point of access with hard to reach workers, because we are rooted in those hard-to-reach communities.”
In the meantime, the Master Food employees are going about their jobs with a heightened sense of confidence.
“I’m so happy, extremely happy, and so are all my other co-workers,” Najera says. “I’d like to send a send a message to the Hispanic community here in New York that we do have rights, we just have to organize each other to defend our rights. We are not alone. We just have to look for the support.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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