Panic at FreshDirect

A unionizing battle and a hunt for illegal immigrants collide

You'd figure it was hard enough already hauling boxes around in a massive, cold warehouse on the midnight-to–8 a.m. shift on the weekend for slightly better than minimum wage. But things got infinitely tougher on Sunday, December 9, for some 900 workers at the FreshDirect food plant in Long Island City.

It was around 3 a.m. that a notice appeared on the company bulletin board, announcing that employees had to produce new proof showing that they were legal residents. Many of the workers are immigrants, a fact that was no secret to the company, which has prospered hugely thanks to their hard work since it opened its doors in 2002. It shouldn't have been a secret to the government, either. Just stand by the G-train stop at 21st Street any morning and watch the men and women rushing past. There is not a lot of English spoken here.

The third paragraph in the notice is what sparked the stampede: "Immigration and Customs Enforcement ('ICE') at the Department of Homeland Security will be reviewing FreshDirect's employees' I-9 forms and accompanying documentation as part of an official audit later this month." Within hours, scores of employees who had worked at the company for years had sprinted out the door, many of them in tears.

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.

This panic came as all of the Republican presidential candidates, including the former mayor of New York, try to outdo one another about what they would do to all the illegal immigrants if they could just get their hands on them. This is interesting because just five years ago the former governor, George Pataki, also a Republican, along with his top economic-development man, Charles Gargano—who raises so much money for Republicans that they want to make him an ambassador all over again—stood outside the sprawling block-long plant on Borden Avenue. There they talked about the millions of dollars in tax incentives that the state was happy to steer toward FreshDirect to help it generate jobs. What they said then was absolutely correct: Jobs are good. A company that prospers and puts many people to work is good.

Since then, FreshDirect has become a booming business. It makes $125 million a year in sales as a million New Yorkers happily punch in their Internet orders for fresh produce and food someone else has prepared. No one asks where the workers come from. And until the unions came knocking on the door, the owners of this wonderful 21st-century enterprise were naturally quite happy to pay their employees as little as they could get away with. This is why unions are supposed to be in business—to even the scales.

The trouble started not long after a Teamsters local union started organizing the warehouse. First, a pair of pro-Teamsters employees were fired. Then came last week's panic on Borden Avenue.

Employees were still getting the bad news Tuesday morning when, coincidentally, Teamsters Local 805, one of two unions that have been vying for months to represent the plant's workers, staged a rally outside the plant. Teamsters leader Sandy Pope, one of the only women to run an industrial union, braced herself on the bottom rung of a police barricade and shouted through cupped hands. "All they're ever going to pay here is minimum wage with no benefits," she yelled. "And then they'll throw you out like they're doing today. What you need is the Teamsters in here."

Pope is a veteran rebel in her own union and has even campaigned against Teamsters national president Jim Hoffa. But that morning the union turned out in force to support her organizing drive, complete with drivers in 18-wheel rigs driving up and down the avenue tooting their air horns. Hoffa himself put out a statement condemning the firings. "FreshDirect boasted to the workers that they had retained the services of an anti-union law firm," said Hoffa. "Now . . . ICE has only helped spread a culture of intimidation and fear."

But as the Teamsters marched back and forth on the sidewalk, a handful of workers from the warehouse stood nearby wearing paper-mesh hairnets on their heads and deep scowls on their faces.

"It's just a goddamned shame," said a tall man who said he'd been picking orders at FreshDirect for the last 18 months. "I went into the break room and it was like a funeral in there. All these people crying. It's dreadful what happened to them."

Company officials insisted they had nothing to do with the feds' sudden interest in their plant, although they were careful to avoid answering any questions directly. A spokeswoman sent e-mail messages stating that the company had asked ICE to delay its audit, given the pending union election, which is scheduled for December 22 and 23, but had been denied. Any suggestion that the company had invited the feds in the door to thwart the union election, said the statement, was "outrageous."

Maybe so, but the feds' audit is still a stunning coincidence. ICE is a law-enforcement agency, and officials were typically shy about talking, except to note that the agency conducts regular and random screenings at workplaces around the country.

"While it is ICE policy to neither confirm or deny any aspect of an investigation, this is part of a national workplace initiative and is coincidental to any local labor dispute," said agency spokesman Mark Thorn.

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.

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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