Panic at FreshDirect

A unionizing battle and a hunt for illegal immigrants collide

Whether the feds simply stumbled across FreshDirect or got a knowing tip, the impact of having hundreds of longtime workers running out the door is hardly a help for the union's chances.

"People were going to vote for the union, but I don't think they will now," said another worker, watching the Teamsters picket line. "Not with this going on. They'll be too scared."

If so, it won't be the first time in FreshDirect's brief labor-relations history that it has gotten lucky. Armed with high-priced legal help, the firm successfully defeated two organizing drives by separate Teamster locals seeking to sign up its 500 delivery workers, most of whom make a few dollars more an hour than the warehouse workers. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, along came Local 348S of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a catch-all union that represents everyone from nursing-home workers to garage attendants and which has long been angrily accused by other unions of offering employers what are called "sweetheart contracts." Such contracts give companies a safe harbor that protects them from other unions, while demanding little in economic benefits.

Sandy Pope, representative of Teamsters Local 805 pushes to win better working conditions for FreshDirect workers; Location: FreshDirect in Queens on Dec. 11, 2007.
photo: Mollye Chudacoff
Sandy Pope, representative of Teamsters Local 805 pushes to win better working conditions for FreshDirect workers; Location: FreshDirect in Queens on Dec. 11, 2007.

Within a few weeks, Local 348S had won a representation election, and a few months later it had a signed contract, lasting for all of five years. Anthony Fazio Jr., the local's secretary treasurer, said his union waged a tough fight to win recognition, though some plant workers reported that company officials had openly encouraged workers to sign up with the union.

Whatever its genesis, the new contract didn't bring the kind of economic justice that unions like to brag about. It includes no minimum starting wage but has a maximum that caps the highest wages the company must pay at $12 to $18. Fazio said that was unimportant. "What I know is when they get into the union, they get increases," he said in an interview at the local's offices in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Those raises total $2.55 over the life of the contract.

On the other hand, the union's officers do quite well. Fazio's father, Anthony Fazio Sr., earned $256,000 last year as local president, plus an added $81,000 in expenses. Fazio Jr. earned $170,000, as did his cousin, John Fazio Jr., who serves as vice president.

Last summer, after Teamsters Local 805 had started signing up warehouse workers, Fazio's union announced that this was their turf and demanded that the Teamsters back off. Teamsters leader Pope said nothing doing. On a couple days before Christmas, the plant workers that remain after last week's massacre will get to vote on the matter. They can pick one of the two competing unions, or they can vote for no union at all. It has not been what anyone could call a fair fight.

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