A crowd of out-of-work bakery employees and their supporters blocked sidewalk traffic on the corner of 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue yesterday to rally to pressure the bakery’s new owners to recognize their union and reopen the bakery.
Tired of the workplace harassment, unpaid overtime, and sub-minimum wage jobs that they say was common at their bakery, workers have spent the past year organizing.
The owners of the shop at the time countered by hiring a union-busting firm, but in May, the workers won an election to form an officially recognized union.
In August, the then-owners closed the shop altogether, threatening to open up elsewhere in the neighborhood, and ominously telling workers that any hires at the new shop would be subjected to close scrutiny of their immigration status.
The workers fought back, temporarily occupying the bakery and then staging a round-the-clock rally outside, handing out free bagels and building community support.
Within days, the workers were contacted by lawyers for prospective new owners. After negotiating, the new owners signed a binding stipulation agreeing to recognize the union, rehire the workers, and institute a hiring hall, giving workers control over new hires at the shop. In exchange, the workers would drop their charges of unfair labor practices, pending at the National Labor Relations Board.
It was a historic agreement. For a handful of mostly undocumented restaurant workers to win such concessions was without modern precedent.
But then the deal languished. For weeks, it wasn’t clear that the landlord would renew the lease anyway. Then, about a week ago, as it became clear that Hot and Crusty was the front-runner for the lease, the new owners began testing the strength of the union. They told workers they could be back at work in a matter of days if they signed a new agreement that did away with the hiring hall.
For the workers, who have been out of work for a month and a half, the prospect of returning to work soon was tantalizing. But control over hiring is critical to keeping the union alive, says Nastaran Mohit, an organizer with the Laundry Workers Center, which has helped the Hot and Crusty employees organize.
“When you have a small shop like this, we don’t have any resources, we don’t have any power,” Mohit said. “All you have to do is fire these workers and rehire new people and you can get rid of the union immediately. The only way for the union to have a foothold in a place this small is with a hiring hall.”
Mahoma Lopez, one of the founders of the Hot and Crusty Workers’ Association, said that the long stretch out of work has been tough for the union members.
“We’ve been out of work 48 days,” he said. “We’re living off of savings, receiving donations, stretching everything as much as possible.”
But yesterday’s rally, with more than a dozen unions and community groups joining to support the workers, shows their movement is still strong, Lopez said.
“This shows everyone how important this kind of struggle is,” he said. “Everyone can have a union. But you need to have determination.”
Go to Runnin’ Scared for all our latest news coverage.