There’s a promotion for pork shoulder in the supermarket window. A photograph, blown up larger than life, shows chunks of pink meat carved away from the bone. It looks delicious. Below the image, however, at this Key Foods here on 44th Street and 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, is a bit of false advertising.
“This is a union shop,” reads a much smaller placard you almost wouldn’t notice, tucked on the lower left corner of the window pane below the giant slab of pork. The grocery store’s meat department workers are members of Local 342 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. But they’re not in the shop. They’re on the pavement outside, worrying about how they’re going to put food on the table for their kids.
“We need our jobs back,” Franky Mendez, a 50-year-old father of three, told The Indypendent on April 25. “They’re showing us no mercy.”
‘I’ve been here 20 days. I’ll be here 20 more if I have to.’
Mendez is one of 38 UFCW members who were locked out by their bosses at Pick Quick Foods Inc., operators of seven Key Food supermarkets in Brooklyn and Long Island, following a one-day strike on April 6. Since then, Mendez and his three colleagues at this Pick Quick location have arrived each morning to call for their jobs back, a contract that provides healthcare and retirement benefits and to alert customers to their plight. They’re asking supporters not to shop at Pick Quick-owned supermarkets and to call the company (at 718-296-9100) and tell it they will keep up the boycott until it rehires its meat workers.
The butchers have labored without a contract for five years. Now Pick Quick wants to make them pay for their health coverage and to trim their retirement funds. Mendez, who has worked for Pick Quick for 11 years, makes $18 an hour because of his seniority, but some of his coworkers make minimum wage. The company is refusing to give the butchers a raise.
A company spokesperson tells The Indy that Pick Quick “has been a proud union employer” throughout its 82 years in business. “This is the first time something like this has ever happened,” he said, blaming Local 342 for sowing discord with its workforce. As for the givebacks Pick Quick is demanding, he said they are due to the fact that the company has to compete with nonunion shops.
But since locking its butchers out, Pick Quick has brought in scabs to run its meat department and some customers are complaining.
“The meat is no good,” said Maria Dasousa, a regular at Pick Quick’s Sunset Park Key Food. “They leave it out too long.”
The Pick Quick spokesperson insisted there was nothing wrong with its product. “We have no issue with the quality of the meat,” he said. “It’s USDA choice or better.”
Mendez is skeptical. “They don’t wear hats, gloves,” he said of the scabs. “I don’t know who’s washing those tables. I feel sorry the neighborhood is buying that meat.”
Despite Pick Quick complaints of nonunion competition, the supermarket sector has generally remained a bastion of collective bargaining, even as private-sector unionization rates have steadily declined in recent decades. UFCW represents workers at more than 20 chains, including Kroger, Albertsons, Gristedes and Shoprite, and counts 1.3 million members in its ranks — an enormous figure, given that just 7.6 million Americans are members of private-sector unions.
In April, an 11-day strike by 31,000 UFCW members at the Stop & Shop chain in New England beat back the company’s demands for a two-tier contract that would have cut health and pension benefits, particularly for future workers.
But with fewer than 40 employees at Quick Pick Key Foods franchise stores, members of Local 342 have far less leverage. Workers with UFCW Local 1500 — which represents supermarket employees who handle non-perishable items and is the largest grocery union in New York State — joined them at a recent protest outside Quick Pick’s Key Food in Park Slope and temporarily halted food deliveries, but community support will also make a big difference in this labor battle.
In the meantime, Mendez is living on unemployment benefits and $200 a week in strike pay from the union. He says he’s in for the long haul: “I’ve been here 20 days. I’ll be here 20 more if I have to.”
This article was updated on May 2 to include commentary from a Quick Pick spokesperson.
Photo: Franky Mendez (far right) and fellow Local 342 members. Credit: Peter Rugh.