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Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Regulating the 99-Cent Store

There’s greed on Main Street, too. Along Knickerbocker Avenue, the teeming, low-income shopping drag in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, the news is that two top executives at a local supermarket were arrested on felony charges that they had cheated their immigrant workers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary.

The executives deny the charges. But prosecutors allege that they forced grocery baggers to work 11-hour days for $20 or so in customer tips — and no wages. Other workers, they say, were paid nearly $3 per hour less than the state’s minimum wage for 70-hour weeks. Along the avenue, where workers have been routinely short-waged for decades, the idea that someone was finally arrested was a source of amazement — as if the government had decided to regulate Wall Street.

It took years of work by community organizers — remember all of the guffawing about that title at the G.O.P. convention? — at Make the Road New York to finally grab the attention of state investigators.

The arrests followed a string of hard-nosed civil settlements at other businesses, according to Andrew Friedman, co-director at Make the Road, including “$28,000 in back salaries from a fruit stand, $70,000 from a 99-cent store, $45,000 from a pizza shop, $400,000 from a chain of sneaker stores.”

Mr. Friedman, along with Jeff Eichler of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, have organized customer boycotts and confronted retailers with documentation from abused workers. Mr. Eichler’s old-line union is having a renaissance in Bushwick, organizing 100 workers at the repentant sneaker chain.

The activists are grateful that New York’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, made the felony arrests — a first for Knickerbocker Avenue. Mr. Eichler estimated that dozens of salary swindlers still await come-uppance. “Lots more store owners have no fear,” he said.