New York food workers challenge unsavory labor practices

By Michelle Chen Feb 06, 2009

New York City is known for its diverse cuisine, but few recognize that the food business is driven by an equally diverse workforce—one wracked by extreme hardship for workers who cook, bake and clean in the back of the house and on the factory floor. Kitchen serfdom A report by Make the Road by Walking, a community-based advocacy group, describes the mistreatment of restaurant workers in New York City, which range from abysmally low wages and overtime violations to unsafe working conditions. Over the past few years, groups like Make the Road and Restaurant Opportunities Center (see Rinku Sen’s Accidental American) have helped advocate in individual cases of worker abuse to win back wages and other remedies. But advocates are also pushing for broader policies to empower workers, including the Employee Free Choice Act and restricting workplace intrusion by immigration enforcement authorities. Noting that immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to abuse as well as racial and ethnic discrimination, Make the Road concludes:

"These unsafe, unfair and illegal practices disproportiona[tely] affect immigrant workers who, according to the 2000 census, make up about two-thirds of the industry’s workforce. These workers are more likely than native-born workers to work in dangerous and low paying jobs like dishwashing or bussing and often find it difficult to move into better jobs (e.g. waiter and bartender) where working conditions are safer and pay is higher."

Bittersweet protest for biscuit workers Employees at the Stella D’oro cookie factory in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx have spent three seasons on the picket line since collective bargaining negotiations fell apart about half a year ago. The workers, who represent the pastiche of Black and Latino families in the surrounding community, are represented by Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union Local 50. The union is fighting against the slashing of wages and loss of vacation and sick days, as well as "crushing healthcare premiums." Generations of New Yorkers have grown up on Stella cookies. But the company is no longer the mom-and-pop shop it once was. Brynwood Partners, a Connecticut-based private equity firm that took over the company from Kraft a few years ago, has stubbornly resisted the protests. Keeping with its reputation for union-busting, the management has moved to replace the workers. Meanwhile, the strikers have found solidarity in a city wracked by economic crisis. Local businesses have pitched in by donating food to the strikers. And workers are encouraging consumers to boycott Stella cookies. As the standoff wears on, the strikers may face even leaner times ahead, but with the support of other workers facing the same bitter circumstances nationwide, the sweet satisfaction of a fair contract seems worth fighting for.