Tom Cat workers fight for dignity

April 26, 2017

Christopher Baum reports on a protest by bakery workers in New York City on the morning they were scheduled to be fired based on their immigration status.

A CROWD of around 100 people, including a small but exuberant brass band, came together in the early morning hours of Friday, April 21, outside the Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City, Queens.

They were demonstrating their solidarity with 15 of the bakery's long-serving workers, who were facing termination for not providing immigration papers to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)--and who walked off the job on their last day to strike.

A month earlier on March 15, the workers at Tom Cat received letters from their employer informing them that they had 10 days to show proof of legal status to work in the U.S., or else they would be fired. Tom Cat stated in the letter that this move was prompted by a DHS audit.

The situation has widely been viewed as reflecting the intensification of anti-immigrant policy under the Trump administration, although Tom Cat says the audit was actually initiated under the Obama administration.

According to the New York Daily News, of the 26 workers who initially received these letters, four immediately produced the correct papers, two quit and found work elsewhere, and five accepted a severance package negotiated by Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union International (BCTGM) Local 53, which represents Tom Cat's employees.

Workers and family members rally at the Tom Cat Bakery in New York City
Workers and family members rally at the Tom Cat Bakery in New York City (Brandworkers | Facebook)

The other 15 decided to fight.

With the help of Brandworkers, a local advocacy group for retail and food employees, the Tom Cat workers organized a demonstration in Long Island City on March 22. Thanks in part to the attention generated by this event, the workers were given an extension until April 21, to produce the required documentation.

The workers held another rally on April 8, this time at Trump Tower in Manhattan. As at the event in March, several local government officials appeared and spoke in support of the workers. But Tom Cat continued to claim that they had no choice but to comply with the DHS audit.

AND SO on the morning of their scheduled April 21 termination, they organized with Brandworkers to have a demonstration and call for a Day Without Bread, asking New Yorkers to refrain from buying bread as a show of solidarity.

As the New York Times reported, this call was taken up by restaurants and other businesses:

Eli and Max Sussman, brothers who run the Brooklyn restaurant Samesa, posted signs drawing attention to the protest, and to the rights of immigrant workers. On Friday, they donated 50 cents from the sale of every item that includes pita bread to a fund set up for workers. And at the register, they collected additional money.

Yemeni bodega owners in Bay Ridge and other parts of southern Brooklyn put up posters in solidarity and in some cases refused to sell any bread on Friday. Many of the bodega owners who shut their stores in February, to protest President Trump's travel ban, feel that the most vulnerable and weakest are being targeted, said Rabyaah Althaibani, a Yemeni-American activist.

A couple of hours before the demonstration on Friday, four activists (none of them Tom Cat employees) handcuffed themselves to the undercarriage of a Tom Cat bakery truck in an effort to prevent the day's orders going out.

The protest itself began with brief opening remarks by Brandworkers organizers and a representative of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. But then the floor was given over entirely to the Tom Cat workers. Each worker stated his name and how long he had worked at Tom Cat; many also gave their countries of origin, which included Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador.

Two common themes ran consistently through their remarks: heartfelt and moving expressions of gratitude to all who had come out to support them, and emphatic reminders that this was not merely a struggle in this one workplace, but rather a fight for justice for all workers and for all immigrants.

Oscar, who has worked in Tom Cat's production area for 12 years, said (through a translator):

We're not just protesting Tom Cat's unjust treatment towards us, we're also resisting Donald Trump and his administration, and we invite you all to join us in the streets on May 1. We're marching because of the many injustices of Donald Trump. We will not be afraid, we will fight for all people to be respected as equals, and we will continue until we achieve victory.

Henry Rivera, an 11-year packing worker, echoed this sentiment: "We're going to stay united. We're standing here today with all of you, united, fighting not just for our rights but for the rights of all workers. And we're going to continue fighting until they listen to us."

AFTER THE speeches, a picket line was formed in front of the bakery, and people took up a number of chants to the rhythm of the band, including: "¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!" (The people united will never be defeated), "¿Qué queremos? ¡Justicia! ¿Cuándo? ¡Ahora!" (What do we want? Justice! When? Now!), "No borders, no walls! Immigrants, they feed us all!" and "¡Trump, escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha! (Trump, listen: we are in the fight!).

Brandworkers organizer Gabriel Morales closed the rally by thanking the Tom Cat workers for their bravery and making an impassioned call for all to participate in May Day demonstrations.

"We want people to know that this fight is not just about this factory," Morales said. "This fight is about a broken immigration system all across this country. We want to invite you all to come support these workers again on May 1... We're going to inspire the nation!"

With cheers and applause, the crowd took up the chant "¡Unión! ¡Fuerza! ¡Solidaridad!" (Union! Strength! Solidarity!) for several boisterous minutes, before gradually dispersing.

The 15 workers are continuing to fight, with Brandworkers' help, to get a better severance package than Tom Cat's current offer of 90 days of health care plus one week's pay for every year of service, in addition to banked sick and vacation days.

During the picket, one worker told that this offer, which Tom Cat has given the workers a few extra days to consider, is "a slap in the face after all the time we've been working here."

But as many of the workers made clear in their speeches, this fight isn't about just one workplace, but about justice and equality for all workers, regardless of immigration status. That's why a hundred people got up at the crack of dawn to stand outside a bakery in Queens, and it's why we need to march on Monday, May 1.

Lucy Herschel and Laura Villa contributed to this article.

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