Greengroceries

By Joshua Breitbart

Gavino Gonzalez was not used to the salad bar and stocked shelves of Fraiche Market on Park Avenue South when he went in to ask for a job. He had only recently arrived in New York City from rural Mexico, where he had worked in the fields harvesting peppers and melons.

The Korean owner talked to him in Spanish: "Do you have experience? Are you new? When did you come from Mexico?" Gonzalez answered truthfully: no, yes, a few days. He did not know it at the time, but his inexperience made him a more likely hire. "They know the new workers don't know their rights so they can pay them the lowest amount," he says now, after 16 months on the job.

At first, Gonzalez was making $200 for 60 hours a week. Now, he is making $260, and he is especially worried he will be fired, replaced by someone new. This is in part because, for the past six months, he has been working with Local 169 of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) to convince his fellow employees that the place should be unionized.

Gonzalez is one of an estimated 14,000 people who work in New York City's "green sweatshops," as union organizers have dubbed the greengroceries with the harshest working conditions. The industry is run on work weeks as long as 80 hours, sometimes paying less than three dollars an hour without overtime pay, vacations, or breaks. Work in these stores is a harsh welcome to immigrants, some of whom risked their lives crossing the border from Mexico.

Local 169 has been trying for the past two years to organize these workplaces and win the employees contracts that include at least the legal minimums for salary and overtime. Community groups are increasing pressure on the stores that refuse to negotiate with the union. And public officials, most notably the New York State Attorney General, are beginning to pay attention to the labor-law violations that are endemic to the industry. But the store owners are fighting back, sometimes in unusual ways.

A GROWING IMMIGRANT INDUSTRY

Average greengroceries only employ five or six people; the largest employ 20. But together they represent an industry that has quickly quintupled in size, from fewer than 400 greengroceries 15 years ago to more than 2,000 now spread throughout the city.

Most of the stores are owned and operated by immigrants from South Korea, many of whom came here in the 1970s. Some took jobs at the sandwich shops or produce stands that were the forerunners of today's greengroceries, which are recognizable by their trademark combination of flower stand, salad bar, and perishables on ice. The Koreans were able to save up money or were partially paid with shares of the store, enabling them to progress to a position of ownership. Eventually, Korean store owners formed alliances to assist one another and to aid new Korean immigrants in establishing their businesses. The Korean Produce Association, which controls the Hunts Point produce market in the Bronx, is part of a system of "ethnic vertical integration," in which a single ethnic group will work in all of the businesses that interact within an industry. This is a familiar pattern to many New Yorkers that makes it easier for a particular ethnic or immigrant group to enter an industry by giving them helpful, same-language contacts. Korean greengrocers can get nearly all of their stock from Korean distributors.

Some of the store owners say that, like their employees, they themselves are hardworking immigrants who had to start at the bottom too. But their critics say that times have changed; opportunities are not the same. The recent rapid growth of the greengrocer industry, like that of other industries in this country that depend on low-paid, low-skilled jobs, has been fueled by the current wave of immigrants mostly from rural areas of Mexico and other Latin American countries. These immigrants, many undocumented, have been displaced by trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has moved eight million Mexicans from the middle class into poverty. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans attempt to cross the border illegally. On average, one person dies every day trying to make the crossing.

Those who make it take the jobs that are available to them, often entering a field where a friend or family member already works. In the past, they would have been employed by the textile industry, which had good, steady jobs for immigrants, many of them unionized. But most of those jobs have moved overseas. Local 169 of UNITE, originally a union of garment workers, is down from a high of 10,000 dues-paying members to 1,000.

Alejandro Mejia walked for two days through the desert to enter the United States. But now he regrets leaving. "Where I worked in Mexico, I had paid vacations, holidays. Here we find economic and verbal abuse. If you are sick you are docked or fired. It's very hard work|for little money. And here, life is expensive. Three hundred dollars is nothing for rent, electricity, and everything else." To make ends meet, he and six other men share a single room in uptown Manhattan that costs $1600.

Mejia got a job at East Natural, a greengrocery that has been the primary focus of Local 169's unionization efforts.

PROTEST, COUNTERPROTEST

East Natural grew to become one of the city's largest greengroceries, thanks to its location on Fifth Avenue and 13th Street, a prominent, high-traffic position near New York University, The New School, and Cardozo Law School. It was also near a competitor, Valentino Market diagonally across Fifth Avenue, that nine months ago quickly agreed to a union contract.

The union has focused on the stores in this area, the Lower East Side and in the East Village, because they say the workers there wanted to organize, and because the neighborhoods are near the union office on 14th Street. But, said Manuel Guerrero, an organizer with Local 169, they are aware that "whatever is going on in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens are worse."

Since April, three separate rallies brought attention to the picket at East Natural. The most recent was an 800-person May Day parade that shouted, chanted, and performed street theater in front of the store for nearly an hour before the police charged the crowd, making five arrests.

The owners of East Natural, allied with other owners at the Korean Retailers Association, struck back. They hired people to picket in front of Valentino, handing out flyers accusing UNITE of forcing workers to join their union. At first, the tactic was an effective one, confusing many people who had gotten used to the Local 169 picket line outside of East Natural. "We just thought they had moved," said David Bell, a student at Parsons.

Picketers are paid as much as $15 an hour by the Korean Anti-Discrimination Association to shout at people going to shop at Valentino, harass the workers there, and attempt to intimidate union organizers. In response, the employees of Valentino placed a letter on the front of the store affirming their support for their employer and pride in Local 169. Despite these efforts and the loyal support of some customers, Valentino is in danger of going out of business, according to court papers. Store manager Charlie Oh says business has dropped by 50 percent because of the Association's picket.

Meanwhile, the owners of other greengroceries, like Jubilee Market in the financial district, have signed contracts with a different union, the International Longshoremen's Association. The Longshoremen's Association gained fame in New York City recently for not adequately supporting striking workers at the Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg. Some claim it is a typical "boss's union," a union that cooperates with the employers more than it promotes the interests of the employees, and is being used to impede Local 169's efforts. Though the owners that have signed contracts with the Longshoremen now pay their employees the legal minimum, they are also supporting the efforts of the Korean Anti-Discrimination Association.

Local 169 and Valentino were able to win an injunction against the Association's picket while a judge prepares to determine if Valentino's competitors are illegally colluding in an attempt to drive it out of business. According to court papers, Valentino claims to be losing $24,000 a week due to the picket. Members of the Association, claiming free speech, have ignored the injunction and continue to protest outside of Valentino.

But the union does not only have the court on its side; it has the state's chief lawyer. On May 2, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced a lawsuit against East Natural, Abbigail, and Soho Natural, all of them with the same owners, for failure to pay minimum wage and overtime to their employees. Federal law requires all employees be paid at least $5.15 an hour, plus 50 pecent for all hours over 40 per week. Spitzer claims that Jacob Han, Josephine Kim, and Charles Kim paid their employees as little as $2.61 an hour with no overtime for work weeks of up to 84 hours. The evidence covers the last six years and affects 31 workers, whose back wages could total $500,000.

Last week, East Natural closed its doors. "A good union cares about the owner and the worker," said John Youn, the manager of Fraiche Market, pointing out that the closing of East Natural meant the loss of 35 jobs.

Despite the newspaper over the windows, many expect it to reopen soon, perhaps under a different name. Abbigail, which had closed in late April, reopened recently under the name Regale, but with the same operating license. And whether or not East Natural and Abbigail are really closed, it will not affect the state's case against them.

THE LAW PROTECTS UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS

Spitzer has had some success previously with greengroceries, last August settling with two for nearly $100,000 in back pay. A spokesperson described the lawsuits and the settlements as part of a comprehensive plan to eradicate labor abuses in New York State. "We know that immigrant populations are typically targeted because people assume they don't know what their rights are," said Juanita Scarlett. But, she added, "the laws protect everyone working in New York."

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established minimum wage and overtime regulations, declared that undocumented workers have the same rights as legal resident workers. The intent of the Act was not so much to prevent abuse at the hands of American employers, but to eliminate an economic incentive to hire illegal immigrants instead of citizens.

The union also does not care about an immigrant's status. Organizers are using experience from working with immigrants in traditional sweatshops to handle the greengroceries. The first step, they say, is often education. "We explain to the workers that what the bosses are doing to them is a crime. It's affecting their welfare and their families' welfare," said Manuel Guerrero, the organizer with Local 169.

The newest immigrants from Mexico do not speak any English, and many speak Spanish only as a second language, having an indigenous Mexican language as their native tongue. "They do not understand the industrial system. They're used to a patron on a large farm," said Guerrero, a native Spanish speaker who is himself from Mexico. "At the beginning, I was very frustrated, but now we've learned to take our time."

THE UNION VOTE AT FRAICHE

Despite Gavino Gonzalez's effort to unionize Fraiche Market, he has not been able to win over all his co-workers. Mohammed Darwish has worked for the same store owner since he emigrated from Egypt six years ago. He has worked at Fraiche Market for three years, where he now receives $500 for 40 or 45 hours a week. In his off hours, he studies to be an accountant, so he says he would know who offered the better deal. "I left my family looking for a better life. If [the union] offered me a better deal, I would take it in a second," he said.

Still, when the employees at Fraiche Market finally held the union election last month, the vote was 11-4 in favor of the union, which means that the store owner has to negotiate with Local 169 for those who choose to be in the union.

To date, only seven stores out of 2,000 have agreed to contracts with the union.

Joshua Breitbart is a New York native and a journalist with the New York City Independent Media Center, the local outlet of a worldwide activist news network.

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