When you block traffic in the streets of Ridgewood and East Williamsburg, just north of Flushing Avenue, you’re pretty much just getting in the way of forklifts and delivery trucks. It’s an industrial swath at the southeastern end of Newtown Creek, and there’s not a whole lot of cars passing through.
This past Monday morning, with snow on the ground and a chill in the air, nearly 200 union and immigrant activists chanted, held signs, and beat buckets from Metropolitan Avenue across the borough divide, eventually crossing Flushing southward into Bushwick along Knickerbocker Avenue. Their targets were three dry goods warehouses and a grocery store, and along the way most of the forklift and truck drivers seemed to enjoy their noisy presence. Some even honked rhythmically or raised their fists in solidarity as the three-hour-long march wormed its way, with police escort, through the edges of Brooklyn and Queens.
"We are teaching the workers to fight for their rights," explained Laura Tapia, a union organizer and Make the Road By Walking (MRBW) member. "They are fighting now."
Tapia, like most of the workers she is organizing, was born in
"Right now," she complained, "the grocery packers are not being paid at all for their time."
These conditions echo those even further to the south, on the other side of Myrtle Avenue. As reported in the June 1, 2006, edition of the Ledger/Star, immigrant grocery baggers there are suing the Food Bazaar supermarket for expecting them to live solely on tips throughout the course of their employment.
The campaign to organize such workers has been led by MRBW, and their growing neighborhood influence in the Bushwick retail sector has now influenced the warehouse workers of East Williamsburg and Ridgewood. Jose Baquero lives on Broadway, but used to work at the Handyfat dry goods distribution center on Thames and Bogart.
"I’m really happy," he said in Spanish, "about the turnout and that so many people from the neighborhood are helping me get my job back."
Last month, Baquero and eight co-workers were fired by Handyfat’s owner, Dennis Ho. They were all members of the fledgling Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union chapter formed there last year in response to below minimum wage conditions. Baquero was working more than 60 hours a week for less than $300.
The story is similar a few blocks to the east, over in Queens, where the march began early Monday morning.
"He wasn’t paying us right," complained Joaquin Almazan of Lester Wen, the owner of the E-Z Supply (now Sunrise Plus) warehouse on 48-01 Metropolitan Avenue. Almazan and many of colleagues were also fired after unionizing, on the pretense of their immigration status.
"He demanded that we produce working papers," recalled Alberto Barruco, after he had worked there for over a year.
"If an employer is going to do an I-9 request," counseled IWW organizer Billy Randal, "he has to do it within 72 hours of the hire. Otherwise it is illegal."
According to Randal, at E-Z Supply and at Handyfat, the organizing drives met with initial successes, as negotiated truces led to better pay and conditions.
"We worked less hours," confirmed Almazan. When asked if things were better overall, he replied: "Mucho."
In December, however, things really heated up for a variety of reasons, including federal lawsuits filed by the workers for back pay. "Despite the best efforts of the bosses to crush the union," wrote Diane Krauthamer in the IWW newspaper, "workers remain strong…Throughout December 2006 and January 2007, IWW members and supporters targeted Sunrise Plus’ restaurants by leafleting customers outside and speaking with management. As of mid-January, eight restaurants in Park Slope have agreed to purchase from other suppliers."
The escalation of tactics on both sides was similar at the Associated supermarket on Knickerbocker Avenue. According to Tapia, four grocery baggers were fired there because of their unionization efforts. The march lingered outside that store for nearly an hour as rally-goers chanted "Boycott!" and handed out flyers.
"The ‘Wake Up!’ Bushwick campaign," read the palm-sized orange handouts, in both English and Spanish, "has already won over $600,000 in illegally withheld wages for workers on Knickerbocker Avenue."
Indeed, the Attorney General’s office was instrumental in those previous legal victories, and according to Tapia the pattern is repeating itself at Associated. "He is investigating the case now," she reported.
Baquero, Almazan, and Barruco all said they heard about these labor victories through friends that were MRBW members. This inspired them to join up, first with MRBW and then with IWW. Those two groups co-sponsored Monday’s march, which started out in Queens with about 75 intrepid marchers, but had more than doubled in size by the time it finished in Brooklyn.