Occupying a union-buster
reports from New York City on a militant fight by immigrant workers.
PROTESTERS OCCUPIED a Hot & Crusty restaurant in midtown Manhattan on Friday, August 31, to prevent the owners from busting the newly formed Hot and Crusty Workers Association by shutting down the store.
"The message I want to send is that we have to change how the immigrants are being treated in this country," says Mahoma Lopez, one of the workers who led the union campaign. "Companies don't respect [our] legal rights because we don't have documentation. We are workers, and we have rights, and we don't have to feel scared."
Lopez and his co-workers rallied outside the store with 50 supporters while a smaller number of activists committed to try to maintain the occupation. After four hours of militant and festive protest, police entered the store and arrested six occupiers.
Last May, workers voted to form the Hot and Crusty Workers Association after months of organizing with the Laundry Workers Center to try to win the most basic improvements in pay, benefits, and working conditions. Lopez tells the story:
We started organizing because we have a lot of verbal abuse. Some people didn't receive minimum wage, they didn't pay overtime. They didn't want to recognize benefits and human rights for the workers. But the most important thing was the start of the verbal abuse. They started calling us idiots, a lot of bad things. That's when you start getting really upset.
We called [the manager] to have a meeting. We started explaining the problems--we've been here six years, and some people don't receive minimum wage, you don't pay overtime. He said, "You know what, guys? My boss says when these kind of problems happen, it's better to call immigration." And I answered back to him, "We are asking for one week's vacation and fifty cents [an hour raise], but it's going to cost you more if immigration comes. There's a fee for each undocumented worker, and you'll probably go to jail." He tried to scare me, but we know much better than that.
After that, he said, "My other boss says it's better to fire everybody and hire new people at $6 an hour." That's why we started the process of organizing. We called the Labor Department, but they take so long. We started feeling tired because the manager started using pressure to get people to quit.
At that point, one of the workers who had a second job in a laundromat suggested they call the Laundry Workers Center (LWC) for help. LWC co-founder Virgilio Aran explains the group's organizing method:
We founded this organization with the mentality that we need to change the way that worker and community organizing is done in the U.S. We are concrete about having at the center of any organizing effort leadership development--providing organizing skills, but at the same time raising political consciousness that we are living in a class struggle.
LWC held an eight-week political and organizational training course for the Hot & Crusty workers and encouraged them to get involved in the Immigrant Worker Justice committee of Occupy Wall Street. The result has been that Hot & Crusty workers have gained both experience in struggles beyond their own bakery and passionate allies in the committee. According to Aran, the Hot & Crusty campaign
would not happen without that support. But not traditional support, like "Come and support us, and then leave, and if we need you again, we'll call you." No, you come and support, and you take part in the decision-making process."
The Immigrant Workers Justice and other labor-oriented committees of Occupy Wall Street provided important support at the initial Hot & Crusty protests, and now, their members are the ones risking arrest by occupying the restaurant. The workers, who held a meeting and vote to approve the occupation, are organizing pickets outside other restaurants with the same ownership, including Europan and Ray's Pizza.
HOT & Crusty workers feel they have no other choice than to take dramatic action.
From the time they voted in May to form the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, owners Mark Samson, Evangelos Gavalos and Paul Pappas stopped paying rent--after being in the same location for 30 years--which led the building's owner to order them to close at the end of August.
The idea that the store's owners can't come up with rent money, while they have been paying an expensive anti-union consultant for months, is laughable. But it's a convenient way to avoid being charged with illegal retaliation for union activity.
"We can get into a legal battle that will take months," says Aran. "For our low-wage workers to say let me wait six months or two months or one month--in New York City--it's a disaster. It's not realistic. We need to take radical action, having civil disobedience, in the way people in the civil rights movement did, so that our voice will be heard."
That voice is notably absent from any of the public debates this election season. As both parties furiously debate Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" comment, no major politician has pointed out that it is workers--many of them immigrants--who have built everything in this country.
The battle at Hot & Crusty is a reminder that lasting change has always come from people's self-organization. The workers face long odds in this fight, thanks to U.S. labor laws that offer almost no protection against the shady tactics Gavalos and Papas have engaged in.
But workers plan to keep fighting. On Saturday, protesters will be back in front of Hot & Crusty for an all-day picket, and beyond that, the workers are discussing a variety of strategies, from picketing in front of the owners' other stores to publicly shaming Samson and his private investment firm Praesidian Capital.
"In the end," says Lopez, "if this company is going to close this shop, we have to be ready to take that responsibility, but that's the best action, because you are closing a sweatshop company. You lost your job but at the same time they lost something and you proved they can't do the same."