Since at least the 1950s, Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick has been packed with retail outlets. The shopping corridor runs four blocks south of, and parallel to, Cypress Avenue, a street that doubles as a borough boundary. Between the avenues of Flushing and Myrtle, Cypress escorts the Brooklyn/Queens divide from the marshy ends of Newtown Creek to the earthen tombs in the cemeteries straddling the Jackie Robinson Parkway.
The neighborhoods of Ridgewood, Maspeth, Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant orbit Bushwick’s commercial core, but the workers who staff its stores often come from much further out.
Jose Enriquez was born in Puebla, Mexico – like many of Bushwick’s newest residents – but he currently calls Corona home. Melissa Brooker and Dexter Durrant were both born on the Caribbean island chain of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but both made their way, years ago, to the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Flatlands and Brownsville, respectively.
All three of these new arrivals now have something in common with their immigrant precursors who toiled along Knickerbocker Avenue a half-century ago. All three are now proud members of a union.
Fifty years previous, this would not have been news. More than half of the mostly mom-and-pop stores back then were covered by union contracts, which provided for pay above the minimum wage, vacation time and health benefits.
Until last month, according to Durrant, "My only vacation was my day off." And he only got one of those every seven, working for $4, then eventually $5, per each of his 60 to 70 weekly hours.
"I don’t go to the doctor," explained Enriquez, "because I have no time. I have to work." Whatever was left over from the $6 an hour he used to make, was sent back to his family in Puebla.
Brooker started four years ago at $4.25 an hour, and was still only making an illegally low $4.75 per hour before the new contract.
All three New Yorkers work at the same shoe chain store, Footco, which has two locations along Bushwick’s Knickerbocker Avenue and ten throughout the five boroughs. Until last month, Footco was a chain like every other along Knickerbocker – it employed mostly immigrants at sub-legal wages with no benefits and no negotiation.
These rampant employer abuses in the heart of Bushwick have recently met their match, in the form of a unique partnership between a local advocacy group and an international union, with a little help from a Congresswoman who is also affectionately know as "Godmother."
"It’s not enough to be courageous," rallied Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who was voted "Godmother of the Wake Up Bushwick Project" six years ago by the members of Make the Road By Walking (MRBW). "You need to know someone else who is out there fighting the good fight."
Joining Velazquez and MRBW in the fight is the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Together, via collective negotiation and the threat of a community boycott, they convinced Footco’s owners, John Kim and his wife, to sign an unprecedented three-year contract, backdated to January 1, 2006.
It provides for hourly wages of $7.25 for all workers, with an increase to $8.15 by the end of the contract, along with health benefits and paid vacation. Velazquez called the new contract, at a bilingual press conference last Wednesday morning, "a victory for workers, for the city and for the community."
Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, announced that, "In many ways this campaign is about involving the community and being good neighbors. Retail stores on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick are part of the community where they are located, just like the workers they employ and the shoppers who come there. We just want owners to acknowledge this relationship and abide by the values within the community."
John Kim, the owner of all ten Footco stores, said by phone that he had "no comment at this time."
Meanwhile, William Kim (no relation), the floor manager of the Footco store in Jamaica revealed that, "Everything is okay. It’s not really a big problem. Everything’s back to normal. Business is business."
"The people that work here," William Kim elaborated of the recent wage and benefit gains, "they deserve what they deserve." The store manager then went on to observe, via phone, that "Some people are taking advantage of the situation, now that they’re in a union." When asked to elaborate, he demurred, "I can’t really put it into words…"
If the owners and bosses are, understandably, nervous about the new power dynamic, the workers are ecstatic. "What can I say?" gushed Enriquez at the press conference. "I feel so happy."
Durrant, meanwhile, explained how the transformation came about. "One day Manuel came in the store," he said of Manuel Guerrero, an organizer for RWDSU, "I took his number and called him and he was talking about a union. I told everybody else. They were scared at first, but I kept talking to them. Now we have a victory, we have that contract."
Brooker agreed with this narrative. "At first we were reluctant to get involved," she said of her fellow workers, "because we were afraid of losing our jobs. After we started joining meetings at Make the Road By Walking, we learned about our labor rights. It didn’t take us long to decide to form a union…we were able to gain respect from our employers."
Of her bosses, Brooker revealed, "Once they got wind of it, there was this tone. They were angry and you could tell they were angry. But there were a lot of people supporting us, and they were backed into a corner."
When asked if he was concerned that the new wage increases would force his bosses to raise prices and thus lose customers, Durrant replied that, "So far prices have dropped to match our competitors." The worker had an idea of where some of the new extra money might be coming from. "The money they were saving by not even paying us minimum wage before," he explained, "they can use that to pay us more now."
Guerrero, the union organizer who first recruited Durrant, agreeed with that economic analysis. "Most of these discount stores," he said of the Knickerbocker Avenue strip, "are making at least 100 percent profit. What we want to do is establish a level of at least $7.50 an hour for workers. Footco is an example of that. It’s a model."
Brucker, amidst her delight at the new wage increases, did not forget this larger context. "This victory is thanks to the community’s eagerness to boycott," she told the assembled cameras and notepads, "and the willingness of our employers to negotiate. They recognized the wrongs they had committed and were eager to correct them. So I encourage you to support the businesses, and let our neighbors know that we will continue the fight."
Indeed, MRBW has no plans to stop its decades-long struggle for social and economic justice in Bushwick and throughout the five boroughs. Velazquez, for her part, is also thinking of an even bigger fight. "This type of victory gives meaning to my work in Washington," she told last Wednesday’s crowd.
The Congresswoman left that gathering, just a block from where the L and J/M/Z trains meet, to head for our nation’s capital, where she plans to introduce an amendment to the most recent Department of Labor funding appropriation. It would call for an extra $5 million to pay for more workplace inspectors.
"We cannot be in Iraq and Afghanistan," lamented Velazquez, "preaching about democracy, but allowing in our own backyard industries and businesses to ignore our own laws."