“Welcome back,” community organizer Lucas Sánchez called out to some 35 demonstrators in front of a small supermarket in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood the afternoon of August 10. “It’s as if we never left,” he added with a smile.
The Saturday rally, announced just two days before, marked the resumption of a consumer boycott at the Golden Farm grocery store in support of Latino produce workers currently in negotiations with the shop’s owner, Sonny Kim. Kensington residents and local labor rights activists started the boycott one year earlier, in August 2012, but suspended it last March at the urging of the workers’ union, Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW, in the hope that this would advance the contract talks.
“We lifted the boycott so Mr. Kim could negotiate in good faith,” Sánchez, who works for the advocacy organization New York Communities for Change (NYCC), told the group of supporters, which included the area’s City Council member, Brad Lander, and a Brooklyn state senator, Eric Adams. But after five months management is still refusing to budge on demands for higher pay, job security, and paid sick days, holidays and vacations, according to the union.
This time the consumer action will continue until the workers have won their contract, Occupy Kensington member Eleanor Rodgers announced as the crowd applauded. “Sonny Kim needs to understand that last time, when we suspended the boycott,” she said, “that was his last chance.”
The Golden Farm struggle may just involve a handful of workers in an out-of-the-way Brooklyn neighborhood, but speaker after speaker stressed that it was part of a large and growing movement of low-wage workers. “Forty-four grocery stores are organizing in Brooklyn,” Sánchez said. “Hundreds of car wash workers are organizing around the city, and thousands of fast food workers are organizing around the country. People are saying it’s time to rise up.”
For decades U.S. labor unions tended to view these workers as too difficult to organize: most are employed in small, isolated shops, and many are vulnerable to employer threats because of problems with their immigration status. Council member Lander commended the courage and dedication of the Golden Farm workers, immigrants who started organizing themselves in December 2010. Since then they have won a raise—to minimum wage—and a back-pay settlement; in September 2012 their efforts resulted in the National Labor Relations Board’s certification of Local 338 as their union.
The struggle gained special emotional resonance when 34-year-old Golden Farm worker and union supporter Félix Trinidad died of stomach cancer in July 2012; unable to get paid sick leave, he had continued to work 12-hour shifts while undergoing chemotherapy.
But Senator Adams emphasized that despite their admirable courage, low-wage workers need the sort of support the Golden Farm workers have been getting in Kensington.
Occupy Kensington’s Rodgers, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, estimates that the earlier seven-month boycott cut Sonny Kim’s business by about 30%. Was she optimistic about prospects for restarting the campaign? “I’m not just optimistic, I’m absolutely certain we can do it,” she said. But she was less certain that they would win. For one thing, Rodgers suspects that Kim has been stalling as the September 20 anniversary of the union’s certification approaches. After that management can push for a decertification vote.
Kensington residents are mostly working-class or lower-middle-class. Many are immigrants, with no one ethnic or social group predominating: the awning at Golden Farm advertises “Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Turkish, Israeli, kosher, organic, gourmet food.” There’s plenty of sympathy for the Latino workers, who live in the community. But the supermarket’s low prices, variety of food types, and convenient location near the subway on Church Avenue make it attractive to consumers. As in many New York grocery stores, the cashiers, the workers that shoppers interact with most, are not Latino and are less likely to support the union.
Rodgers, herself an immigrant from Northern Ireland, says Kim has tried to play on potential divisions, depicting the boycott as the work of “outsiders.” At the rally she called for neighborhood people to staff the picket lines on weekend afternoons and in the evenings on weekdays. “We aren’t NYCC, we aren’t the union,” she insisted. “We live here.”
For all the difficulties they face, labor rights supporters were in good spirits as they started the first picket line of the renewed boycott. Drivers on Church Avenue regularly honked in support when they saw the picketers’ signs.
Laura Castro, a schoolteacher and one of the Kensington residents on the line, admitted that the neighborhood was polarized over the boycott but said she was hopeful that most people would back the workers. She’d observed a change in the political climate over the last few years, she explained. “It’s surprising how much feeling there is out in the community about depressed wages, about unions being dismantled. The big media aren’t telling us about this.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007. He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean. This article first appeared at grassrootssolidarity.blogspot.com.