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In one of the most remarkable underdog stories in recent labor history, 23 low-wage restaurant workers at a Hot and Crusty Bakery location on the Upper East Side have won a surprising victory.
The bakery’s owners closed it August 31after the workers successfully formed a union, but the workers fought back, briefly taking over the bakery on its last day and maintaining a 24-hour picket and street cafe through the following week.
Saturday, it was announced that new owners had taken over the bakery, and had signed binding promises to reopen the bakery within 15 days, rehire its workers, recognize their union, and institute a hiring hall, giving the workers control over the hire of new employees.
“It’s a victory,” said Mahoma Lopez, a seven-year bakery employee outside the Hot and Crusty yesterday afternoon. “I wasn’t expecting for so much.”
He’s hardly alone. No one was expecting a tiny handful of mostly undocumented workers to win such concessions from a powerful ownership team led by Mark Samson, a managing partner at the private equity firm Praesidian Capital. Workers say management used their immigration status to threaten them, and spent more than $500,000 on a union-busting consultant and lawyers.
“It’s historic. It’s pretty much unprecedented,” said Nastaran Mohit, an organizer at the Laundry Workers Center, which helped train and support the bakery workers. “The depth of support really helped, but the other thing that made the difference was the willingness of the workers to escalate.”
It probably didn’t hurt that Samson lives around the corner from the bakery. Workers say throughout their week of picketing, local residents often said they knew Samson personally, and promised to speak to him.
“We weren’t just shaming him in front of his customers, but in front of his neighbors,” Mohit said.
Organizers say the success is largely attributable to the support of allies, ranging from much larger unions like SEIU 32BJ to student groups and Occupy Wall Street activists. They also the credit the support of people in the neighborhood, many of whom have been buying bagels from the workers for years.
The bakery employees approached the Laundry Workers Center for help last year, complaining about unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, intimidation, chronic wage theft and sub-minimum-wage compensation.
The Laundry Workers Center, a tiny operation working on a shoestring budget with unpaid organizers, put the workers through an eight-month training course, teaching them about labor law, organizing, and tactics.
“The idea is to empower them to be their own organizers,” Mohit said. “To make sure that they’re leading, not being led. It’s very different from the top-down approach of a lot of the big unions.”
It’s an approach that could prove powerful in other shops as well. There’s already a push to organize among some workers at other Hot and Crusty bakeries elsewhere in the city.