Trouble in Store

Workers at a Brooklyn grocery say they're not paid fairly, if at all.

"Here's a target," says Padilla, motioning to the awning that reads ".99 and Up." The discount store is brimming with mops, detergent, and paper towels, each item under a buck. Last August, Spitzer reached a $70,000 settlement with the owner, Khubaib Massood, for back wages owed to four employees. They were making $3.44 an hour.

Padilla points to S&S Farms. "We confronted him," Padilla adds, referring to Heung Park, who operates the greengrocer. A March 2005 complaint led to a $28,852 settlement with the AG for three employees earning an hourly $3.50. Today, the AG's office is prosecuting Park in Brooklyn Criminal Court for defying that agreement.

But the group's biggest coup, by far, came at Footco, a discount sneaker chain. An August 2005 complaint ended in a union contract for workers this year. That has meant not just a doubling of salaries, but the providing of health benefits too.

The Associated Supermarket on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, now the target of a fair-labor investigation
photo: Jacob Pritchard
The Associated Supermarket on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, now the target of a fair-labor investigation

Annette Bernhardt, of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, considers Knickerbocker Avenue a microcosm of the rest of the city. She and her colleagues have interviewed 300 workers and employers throughout the five boroughs, and have identified 14 industries where wage violations have become standard, including retail.

The problem has grown prevalent in poor neighborhoods like Bushwick. Predominantly immigrant employees grapple with language barriers and, in some instances, shaky legal status. Predominantly immigrant employers don't keep up on the laws, either, which have changed twice in two years. Meanwhile, the government has stopped aggressive enforcement. "If you're a low-road employer, you have a lot of incentive to break the law," Bernhardt says.

Food retailers have become prime suspects. The AG's labor bureau has prosecuted hundreds of greengrocers for violations since 1999, says Smith. Three years ago, it negotiated the landmark $3.2 million settlement against Gristede's Food, in Manhattan. That's how much the supermarket chain owed 60 delivery workers who had toiled 60 hours a week for $95 plus tips.

Just last May, nine former employees sued another Bushwick supermarket, Food Bazaar, accusing the store of forcing them to work 50 to 60 hours per week, paid only in tips. The lawsuit, now pending in federal district court, seeks more than $1.5 million in back wages and overtime pay.

Over at Associated, conditions seem mixed. Employees who spoke with the Voice represented virtually every department, from meat to produce to the main floor. They handle food, load cargo, stock shelves, deliver groceries. Shifts last 10 hours, and run six days straight, they say. Yet the workers say only two employees get a proper wage—$500 a week, or $7.14 an hour. The rest report averaging $300 a week—the going rate at grocery stores, restaurants, and garment factories these days, according to Bernhardt. Packers, including the Nuñezes, report receiving only tips.

"It's not enough," says one worker about his wage, "not with the hard work that we do."

As far back as December 2004, Make the Road activists began approaching the workers, explaining the push to wipe out allegedly abusive conditions. It took months to convince enough of them to participate in the AG complaint. Eventually, that same worker relays, "we said, 'Let's do it.' It was time to stand up."

These days, activists are literally standing up outside the Associated store. Evenings at five, the picket line forms in front of the tired supermarket, its windows papered with promotional banners—Hunt's tomato paste, two for $3; Super "A" mayonnaise for $1. At times, the protests have drawn 50 people. On this Thursday, there are three lone picketers. They pass out pink flyers that announce "Boycott Continues," as shoppers slip in and out of the store. Some shoppers murmur an apology; others turn away to buy groceries elsewhere. And some—not a chance. Says one thirtysomething man with a shrug, "I've got to buy food."

Activists wrote to Bienvenidos Nuñez on June 16, announcing the boycott over wages and requesting a meeting. Make the Road organizers met with his attorney, Rosenthal, to no avail. Last month, the company filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the boycott amounts to a demand for union recognition. Rosenthal argues that Make the Road is a front for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, a Despierta Bushwick collaborator.

"This is all about a union seeking to organize," he tells the Voice.

Manhattan attorney Andrew Erlich, who represents Make the Road, counters that "this is an obvious attempt to stifle the community's voice." After all, he notes, any picketing would have to stop if there were a union election. "The owners are essentially saying that Make the Road is a union, and that's not true."

Evidently, the NLRB agreed; on July 18, it threw out the petition without a hearing. In the five-page decision, the board found "no evidence that Make the Road, the Union, or any labor organization commenced organizing the employees."

Back at Associated, employees have seen some changes—good and bad. The workers interviewed for this story say they've received a $25 hike in their weekly wages since June. At the same time, they claim, they've had to sign letters stating that they make the minimum wage and that they won't join a union.

For the Nuñezes, things seem worse. Sitting in Make the Road's Grove Street office, surrounded by stacks of "Boycott Associated" mailers, the couple recall how they lost their jobs within weeks of the action. After activists singled out the paltry pay of packers—there are four in all—the Nuñezes say their superiors called them into the office, and asked if they'd participated in the labor complaint.

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