Tom Cat does Trump’s dirty work

March 23, 2017

Danny Katch reports on the struggle of immigrant workers at Tom Cat Bakery to defend their jobs in the face of company demands to prove their legal status.

WHEN PEOPLE talk about Donald Trump's anti-immigrant base, they usually aren't thinking of artisanal bakeries in New York City.

But when Tom Cat Bakery in Queens handed out letters to 30 employees on March 15 demanding that they show proof of legal status, it showed that the people who have the most to gain from Trump's crackdown aren't white factory workers in the Rustbelt, but bosses everywhere who want to keep their workers divided and afraid.

At a Wednesday rally organized by Brandworkers, an advocacy organization for workers in New York City's food and retail industry, Héctor, a 13-year Tom Cat worker, addressed the crowd:

I pay taxes, I work hard, I have a family. Last week, we received a letter asking us for documentation. We were only given 10 days [to submit the paperwork]. I think it's very unfair the way we're being treated. We've given so much to this company. The reason why the company is successful today is because of our hard work.

We are asking for everybody to stand up with us today in solidarity. We are not criminals like we've been identified as. We're calling on Tom Cat and the American government not to treat us as criminals. We are hard workers, and we're taking this country upward.

Workers at Tom Cat Bakery in Queens protest management's threat to fire undocumented employees
Workers at Tom Cat Bakery in Queens protest management's threat to fire undocumented employees (Danny Katch | SW)

Democratic City Council member Mark Levine told the crowd, "We reject the racist policies of Donald Trump's ICE which have targeted decent hardworking New Yorkers who have done nothing but contribute to this community contribute to this economy and made our city a better place."

"We demand that Tom Cat defend their workers in their time of need," he continued, "and that they offer the sponsorship that they need to remain here without this horrible threat standing over their heads."

But at this point workers don't even know whether the company is being forced to hand out these letters or if their employer is taking advantage of the national climate to advance its own agenda.

"The company has unilaterally done this," Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross said in an interview. "We don't have any confirmation except for a letter on company letterhead about what's happening here."

Gross added that workers are demanding transparency "and immediate cooperation, in terms of challenging whatever is or isn't happening. They're demanding to stay in their jobs. And they're going to fight for that."

The New York Daily News reported in 2014 that there were 14,000 workers in New York City's $5 billion food manufacturing industry, and that 70 percent of them were recent immigrants, mostly from Latin America and Asia.

According to a study conducted that year by Brandworkers and the Urban Justice Center's Community Development Project, over 40 percent of those workers reported suffering from a workplace injury.

MANY OF the Tom Cat workers under threat of termination have been at the company for at least 10 years. "We've given so many years to this company and made so many sacrifices," said one employee. "We built this company from the ground up."

"Last week, I was called into the office, and I was only given 10 days' notice to submit my working papers," said another. "They have given us only until the 28th of this month. After that we're fired. After hearing that news we've been devastated since we've given so many years of our lives to the rise of this company."

Worker after worker at the rally talked through Spanish translation of the shock at being given only a few days notice after giving the company so many years, without even word of severance pay. It was, of course, the same feelings of betrayal often heard from native-born workers going through factory closures or mass layoffs.

But Tom Cat workers are determined to fight. This is a group that first contacted Brandworkers five years ago for help in taking on abusive management from the bakery's new private equity owners, and that spirit of an organized workplace was evident at the rally.

Dozens of workers marched from a nearby park to the factory, chanting "¡Tom Cat, escucha! ¡Estamos in la lucha!" and "¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" and joined by fifty supporters from various unions and labor solidarity groups.

"Their fight is our fight, our fight is their fight," said Julian, an organizer with Teamsters Local 814. "No matter their status, if they're working here, they deserve respect and they deserve rights."

Henry, a packing worker for 11 years at Tom Cat, echoed the sentiment of solidarity at the end of the rally. "Thank you all for being united with us fighting for justice," he said. "We'll continue fighting until victory, not only for the workers at Tom Cat, but for the workers of New York and all the workers in the nation--because many workers are going through exploitative conditions."

"What I know is that Trump picked the wrong group of workers and the wrong organization," says Gross. "They concluded that there's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Trump is coming for all marginalized people, and this is the moment to draw the line and fight back. They're committed to fight in the end."

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