Dining Out on Cheap Labor


Right up until the day he walked out in angry protest last month along with many of his fellow workers, Rangel Lucero, 27, had spent most of his waking hours over the past eight years working in the cold at a kosher food plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

When Lucero first started at the Tuv Taam Corporation (the name means “good flavor” in Hebrew), he was ordered to show up at the Flushing Avenue plant at 4:30 a.m. He worked for as many as 16 or 17 hours a day, often more than 70 hours in a week that went from Sunday to Thursday to accommodate the Orthodox Jewish owners’ religious practice. Although federal law requires overtime pay after 40 hours, he received the same $4 an hour no matter how many hours he put in.

There were few amenities at the plant. Drinking water was unavailable, and the 60 workers—roughly half of them men and half women—shared just three toilets. If they stayed there more than a couple of minutes, supervisors paged them on the plant’s loudspeaker system. Strong chemicals used on the food often stung their eyes, but no goggles were available. They were handed toxic solvents to clean the machines, but instead of thick rubber gloves, managers gave them thin latex disposable ones. The workers wore six or seven pairs to keep their hands from getting burned.

Except when disaster strikes, the underground labor market that preys on New York’s mushrooming immigrant workforce stays largely masked from public view.

None of this stopped Lucero, who was then 19 years old, newly arrived from Puebla, Mexico, and eager to work. For a while he ran a machine that filled small plastic containers with tuna, egg, and whitefish salads that are sold to supermarkets, hospitals, and airline suppliers. After that, he worked in the walk-in freezer filling boxes for shipping. The managers told him they liked him and gave him small raises. “They told me, ‘Rangel, you’re number one, nobody works like you,’ ” he recalled last week.

But the long hours took a toll. In the kitchen, he slipped in a pool of oil, injuring his back. Since Tuv Taam’s owners provide neither health insurance nor sick days, Lucero still came to work with his bad back.

His second accident was more serious: While trying to reach high shelves in the huge freezer room, his ladder skidded on the icy floor. Trying to break his fall, Lucero mashed the fingers on his left hand. He was ordered to finish out his shift. That night, he went to the hospital to have X rays taken. He tried to give the $450 hospital bill to his employers, but they refused to pay it. He received no follow-up care, and eventually the knuckles on his pinky, ring, and middle fingers healed in a permanent, inward, twisted curve that limits the use of his hand.

His wasn’t the only accident. Recently, an employee got his hand stuck in a salad packaging machine. Another worker, Gonzalo Cruz, demanded that an ambulance be called. Managers refused. When Cruz said he was going to take the injured worker to the hospital himself, a supervisor yelled at him to stay where he was. Cruz took the injured man anyway. Both men were later docked for leaving the workplace.

A few months after his fall, Lucero began to feel his heart racing. Between the hour and a quarter commute from his Bronx home and his long shift at work, he was managing only a couple of hours’ sleep a night. A doctor advised him to slow down and work only eight hours a day. That was impossible, however, because the minimum shift at Tuv Taam is 12 hours. This time, the plant managers gave him a break: They let him take two weeks off—without pay. Until last month’s labor walkout, it was the only time off Lucero has received in eight years.

Except when disaster strikes, the underground labor market that preys on New York’s mushrooming immigrant workforce stays largely masked from public view. The 1999 death of a Mexican laborer killed in the collapse of a faulty Brooklyn building brought condemnation from political and labor leaders and government investigations. But as shown in last month’s Voice cover story by Michael Kamber on the exploding number of immigrant day laborers in the city (“Desperate for Work,” July 31), thousands of men and women go to work every day at jobs where employers routinely break the laws governing wages, hours, and safety. Those working conditions remain hidden behind brick walls and language barriers.

But it wasn’t an accident that allowed a glimpse inside operations at the Tuv Taam plant. Instead, it was a rare instance of defiance by workers who usually—out of fear of being fired or deported—shun open confrontation with employers.

In a burst of long pent-up frustration, 32 workers, most of them immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, walked off the job on July 3 to protest the firing of kitchen helper Oscar Palacios, 26, who had been handing out pro-union flyers outside the plant. Palacios and Lucero were among a number of plant workers who had been trying for months to organize a union at Tuv Taam. They got help from a rank-and-file advocacy group called Association for Union Democracy and a local organization called Latin American Workers Project. Many of the Latino workers were sympathetic to the idea of forming a union, according to Oscar Paredes, an organizer for the project, but they were still trying to reach the 30 or so Polish-speaking women in the plant.

After the leaflets appeared, managers called employees into the office, one at a time, and asked them to name who was responsible. According to Mayra Peters-Quintero, an attorney with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund who has filed labor complaints against Tuv Taam with federal and state agencies, managers said they already knew Palacios was involved. They offered cash for the identities of other organizers. The workers refused, and that evening Palacios was fired.

It was an unusual walkout. The workers weren’t members of a union, and they never declared themselves on strike. “We’re not afraid,” Lucero confidently told the Daily News‘ Carolina Gonzalez, the first to report the protest. Over the next three weeks, Tuv Taam continued operating with replacement workers as the protesters met with several unions interested in representing them, and tried to plot strategy.

On July 19, all the workers except Palacios received letters from the company stating that they could go back to work without conditions. After a discussion and a vote to affiliate with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union of the AFL-CIO, the workers decided to accept. They would go back to their jobs and continue trying to organize.

With the letters clenched in their hands, the protesters tried to go back on Sunday, July 29, but found the plant closed for religious observance. The next morning, they tried again but were met by owner Aaron Nutovic. He seemed to have a speech prepared, Lucero said. “He said, ‘Rangel, you see the newspaper here? You say you don’t have men’s room, water? You’re coming here and you want work? Forget it. You said in strike, ‘No Justice, No Business.’ So I don’t have business for you. I don’t have time to speak to you.’ ”

Nutovic also had no time for the Voice; he didn’t return calls. Lucero went last Wednesday to the plant to pick up his work boots and pants. Just in case, he asked a manager if there was work for him. The answer was still no. “Some people, like me and Oscar [Palacios], are too strong. They don’t want us back,” he explained.

Contributions to aid the fired Tuv Taam workers can be sent to: Latin American Workers Project, Tuv Taam Strike Fund, c/o Transfiguration Parish Credit Union, 429 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY 11211.