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Fighting for Minimum Wage Rights

Clark Merrefield Feb 28, 2007

For many of the Latino and East Asian warehouse workers in North Brooklyn and Queens who keep the shelves and kitchens of New York City restaurants, grocery stores and delis stocked, getting by is a constant struggle. Customers are often culturally and economically removed from the warehouses’ largely immigrant workforce, while the management can be downright exploitative.

Top City Produce, a warehouse in Bushwick, has faced accusations of unfair labor practice from its employees and their representative union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Management at two other IWW-represented warehouses, Handyfat Trading Inc. (Bushwick) and EZ Supply Corp., now Sunrise Plus Corp., (Queens) have fired all their unionized workers in the past month and a half. On Feb. 3, Top City workers were told in a letter from management that Top City would be closing for three weeks to financially restructure.

Then, on Feb. 13, union organizers were told that Top City’s lawyer was willing to talk. The two sides agreed that workers would return the next day, but without the $30 lunch stipend they had enjoyed and also without the right to change their clothes at the workplace. Though the workers are happy to be returning to their jobs, Top City’s perceived slights have not gone unnoticed.

“Every day they’re doing things to take rights away,” said IWW member Osvaldo Garcia, who has been working at Top City for five years.

“The lawyer says they’re willing to accept the union and negotiate a shop contract, and the employer turns around and retaliates against the workers,” said Billy Randel, lead organizer for the Top City campaign. When asked about his decision to shut down his warehouse on Feb. 3, Top City owner Tony Chen said, “I have nothing to say about it.”

Complaints against Top City have already been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and decisions on those complaints are expected shortly. The IWW intends to file new charges with the NLRB based on the company’s recent shutdown. According to Randel, the IWW raised $20,000 to help sustain Top City’s unionized workers during the shutdown period. The IWW employed the unionized workers as warehouse organizers in Chinatown and Bushwick before Top City’s unexpected callback.

Garcia said before joining the IWW, he was making $480 per week working tenand-a-half to eleven-and-a-half hours per day, six days a week. Now, he is making minimum wage – $7.15 per hour in New York state – and working 30 to 35 hours per week. According to IWW organizer Tomer Malchi, Garcia and other workers would like more hours.

“That’s still not enough. They want to be working more, they want overtime. That’s where the money is,” Malchi said. Though six of 11 Top City workers are reportedly staunchly against the union, the five who have signed up are just as staunchly in favor of it.

“I’ve been listening to what other people are saying and they don’t think that the union is good, but I know that they’re helping me and they’re helping us in this situation,” Garcia said.

MAKE THE BOSS PAY
Is your employer cheating you out of wages you are legally owed? The State Labor Department has bilingual investigators throughout the state who are able to aid workers with issues relating to compliance with New York’s labor laws.
• New York State minimum wage: $7.15/hour
• To file a complaint or ask questions call 1-800-447-3992 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday – Friday. Operators speak English and Spanish.
• If you speak Chinese, you may call 212-621-0475 and if you speak Korean, you may call 212-621-0483.
• For more information: www.labor.state.ny.us