Friday was the last day that the Hot & Crusty bakery on 63rd and 2nd Avenue was scheduled to be open. Instead, employees and their supporters took the store over briefly Friday afternoon before police moved in, emptying the shop and arresting six people.
The owners had announced their intention to close the shop two weeks ago, shortly after a supermajority of the 23 employees, working with the Laundry Workers Center, voted to form an independent association and filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
Virgilio Aran, a founder and organizer with the Laundry Workers Center, said the employees were driven to organize by an abusive work environment and chronic wage theft, with many taking home less than minimum wage.
Workers and their supporters declined to discuss the employees’ immigration status Friday, but observed that undocumented workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and retribution by employers, making organizing difficult.
Aran said workers were told after they formed a union that the owners would simply close the shop, wait a few months, and then reopen nearby, hiring unorganized workers. In most circumstances, labor law requires unionized businesses that close and reopen to honor existing labor relationships. But Aran said the employer has threatened to check the immigration status of the organized workers upon reopening as a way to legally keep them out.
Hot & Crusty has several locations throughout Manhattan, and is owned by Evangelos Gavalas, Nick Glendis and Mark Samson, the operating partner of Praesidian Capital, a private investment firm with more than $700 million in investments.
After police closed and chained shut the bakery Friday afternoon, the remaining employees left, many on their way to second jobs. Felizito Tapia, who works at a Pizza Bagel on 14th street with the same owners, stayed on with a group of supporters promising to maintain a 24/7 presence outside the storefront.
“If they get a union, they get paid what they’re owed, they get vacation, they get sick days,” Tapia said. “Right now they don’t have any of that.”
Tapia said he struggles with similar issues of abuse and underpayment at his location, but he’s not afraid to speak out. “They can fire me anytime they want,” he said. “I’m not scared anymore.”
He paused, taking in the swarm of police officers still guarding the empty store.
“I look at this and I have one question,” he said. “The cops have a union. Why can’t the workers have a union?”
Filmmakers Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears have been documenting the worker’s push to organize. You can see some of their work here:
Cafe Wars Trailer from Robin Blotnick on Vimeo.