Update: On Oct. 25th, Day 55 of the picket, the Hot and Crusty workers signed a collective bargaining agreement with their new employer.
New York City – Immigrant workers at the Hot and Crusty Bakery are inspiring workers across New York City and the world by defying the powerful interests of capital that attempt to not only bust their union but extinguish the spark of the workers’ example that has the potential to ignite in the most brutal workplaces.
About 100 people, representing labour unions, worker solidarity groups and socialist parties, rallied with the Hot and Crusty workers outside the now closed bakery on Oct. 18th, which marked fifty days for the workers on the picket line, with no pay, strike fund or access to unemployment insurance. Unions and workers present at the rally included the Transport Workers Union representing the city’s subway workers, Con Edison workers, Verizon phone workers, DC 37 city workers, UFCW supermarket workers, Professional Staff Congress (the CUNY faculty/staff union), members of the United Federation of Teachers, and many others. Workers in delivery trucks and buses honked their horns and waved in support of the workers during the rush hour rally.
Mahoma López worked at the now closed Hot and Crusty for seven years. Some of López’s co-workers worked there twice as long. The workers made and sold bagels, cakes and pizza and served coffee for below the minimum wage, with no overtime pay. They say they were victims of chronic wage theft, sub-minimum wage compensation and verbal abuse from the manager. Female workers say they were sexually harassed. When López and his co-workers complained, they were greeted with overt threats of deportation by the manager.
Margarito López, who washed dishes 70 hours a week for $410, says he tried to talk to his manager about his paltry wages but got nowhere. Nazario Guzman didn’t receive a pay increase when he went from washing dishes to making pizza. When he asked for a raise, he was told to wait. “We decided to form a union. We went against the boss and all his tricks,” says Margarito López.
The federal minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25/hour. Margarito López and his co-workers made about $5.68/hour in the country’s most expensive place to live, Manhattan, where the federal minimum wage is recognized as insufficient to pay for basic necessities like rent and food.
With a growing list of workplace grievances, the Hot and Crusty workers first tried calling the Department of Labor but the Department never called them back. They then made a call to the Laundry Workers Center and that’s when action was taken on their behalf, according to Margarito López.
The Laundry Workers Center’s members are primarily low-income laundry workers who are committed to improving the conditions of workers. The Center’s unpaid organizers provided an eight-month training course to the Hot and Crusty workers that imparted knowledge of labour law and organizing skills.
After winning tens of thousands of dollars in back pay in wages owed to them, the twenty-three workers at Hot and Crusty, most of them undocumented immigrant workers in vulnerable positions, decided to form an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers’ Association. The union was supported by the majority of workers in a vote on May 23rd and was certified on June 1st.
Unionizing is still an unusual move for immigrant workers in the U.S. According to 2009 figures from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Division of Immigration Policies and Affairs, 1.9 million immigrants work in New York City. Immigrant workers without the proper papers and status risk being terminated and deported for fighting for basic workers’ rights like the right to collectively bargain, the right to a living wage and the right to be defended in cases of workplace abuse.
The former owners of Hot and Crusty attacked the workers’ union through the employment of intimidation and offers of monetary compensation, all illegal actions under the U.S. National Labor Relations Act.
Mark Samson, a millionaire managing partner at the private equity firm Praesidian Capital, was the majority owner of Hot and Crusty. On August 31st, Samson announced the bakery would be closing with the excuse that the company could not pay the rent. The move was expected by the workers and their allies as it is a common practice for companies to shut down their operations when workers attempt to unionize then reopen in the neighbourhood or at the same location but under a different name.
Supporters of the workers briefly took over the bakery on the last day it was opened and the workers held a 24 hour picket. They then opened a sidewalk cafe in front of the closed Hot and Crusty for a week, feeding their regular customers and talking to passersby about their struggle.
About a week later, on September 8th, a new investor came forward saying that he would buy the bakery and hire all the workers back, recognize their union and put into place a hiring hall, where the union controls the hiring of new workers.
News of the workers’ victory was celebrated across the city, the U.S. and beyond. The workers’ persistent, creative and courageous actions were finally bearing fruit. However, a week later, on September 14th, the prospective owner said that he had been refused a lease from the current owner. The workers and their allies, disappointed but not defeated, returned to picket outside the Hot and Crusty location as well as other bakeries owned by Samson in the city. The example of immigrant workers establishing a union at a bakery is perhaps too large a threat for capitalists such Samson: there’s talk of organizing the workers at similar locations in the city.
During the fifth week of their picket, on October 3rd, three workers from Hot and Crusty stood before a group of mostly professors and alumni of Hunter College at the City University of New York and called a new investor. Many organizations have supported the Hot and Crusty workers including labour unions, socialist organizations, student groups including university and high school students and Occupy Wall Street activists.
The workers hoped that the investor would tell them and the audience at Hunter College that he was reopening the bakery, hiring all the workers back and recognizing their union. The investor answered the call and told Mahoma López that they would have to wait a little longer. He said that they would have to wait for the ink to the dry on the agreement. The workers are anxious and hopeful but know that their struggle is far from over.
The workers met with the potential new investor a week later on October 10th. The investor said he would recognize the union but he put a number of concessions on the table that were not acceptable to the workers like the demand that future workers have the option of joining the union. The workers feel that this is an attempt to dump the union in the future.
The Hot and Crusty workers are giving us glimpses into the potential of the working class in New York City and beyond. According to Virgilio Aran, an organizer with the Laundry Workers Center, “The picket line represents the aspirations of many low-wage workers in New York City and across the USA.”
The Hot and Crusty workers and their allies are requesting that people join the picket line at 63rd Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan from 8am to 7pm. Donations of money, food, water or juice are requested.
For more information or to find out how you can support the workers, contact the solidarity committee at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tracy Glynn is on the board of the NB Media Co-op.