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Know Your Rights
Source: Daily News
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Market’s not so Super

No more free lunch.

Although, in fact, workers say that a Bushwick supermarket has been enjoying much more than a free lunch at their expense. And that it has been going on for years.

But no more.

That was the no-nonsense message of a demonstration that took place Tuesday in front of the Associated Supermarket at 229 Knickerbocker Ave. in Bushwick.

"There was a big crowd," said Andrew Friedman of Make the Road by Walking, a Bushwick community group. "The community support was striking. People respected the picket lines and were willing to walk a couple of blocks more not to buy at Associated."

The demonstration was against illegal sweatshop conditions that the group said affect about half of the store’s 40 to 42 workers. It also called for living wages.

According to Make the Road by Walking, some of the workers earn $250 to $300 weekly for 9-1/2 hours of work, six days per week, in clear violation of minimum wage and overtime laws.

The Despierta (Wake up!) Bushwick Campaign, launched by Make the Road by Walking, has taken the lead in organizing the protest against what it calls the supermarket’s abusive labor practices. A boycott was launched June 18.

The reasons for its action are plentiful: The store, according to the protest organizers, owes their workers more than a million dollars in illegally withheld back wages and overtime pay. They say the baggers, for example, receive no salary at all for their work, just tips, which is illegal.

Friedman said that they tried to meet with the owner before declaring the boycott.

"We sent him a letter asking him to meet with us," Friedman said. "And he agreed on a date, but never showed up."

Finally, there was a meeting with the store’s lawyer, Joseph Rosenthal, last Friday.

"We suspended the boycott for the weekend to signal we seriously wanted to negotiate," Friedman said. "But after four days we reinitiated it – management had no real interest in negotiations."

Rosenthal alleges that the protests are organized by "agents" of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

"That is illegal," Rosenthal said. "We are all for secret ballot elections ASAP like the NLR board prescribes, so workers can decide if they want a union. But protesters know they would lose, so they don’t agree to the elections."

The lawyer also said that the store is in "full compliance" with labor laws.

"The problems they are talking about have to do with the previous owners," he said. "We have operated the store only two years."

Friedman laughed. He said that for the past two years, the Bushwick store has been plagued by labor violations.

"Despierta is committed to the idea that workers should have the freedom to join a union without fear," he said.

He added that management has been threatening the workers with firing and closing the store if they join a union.

"There is no way to have a fair election in this climate of fear," he said. "Workers are petrified."

Despierta leaders have no doubt that workers, with the community on their side, will prevail. Actually, the boycott comes on the heels of a major victory against Footco, another Bushwick retailer that, relenting to community pressure, agreed to pay workers more than $410,000 in back wages.

The workers, consumers and church members who protested Tuesday on Knickerbocker Ave. say there is no going back: At least in Bushwick, no more free lunch for abusive employers.