After 55 days on the picket line, the workers of the Manhattan restaurant and bakery Hot and Crusty celebrated a precedent-making collective bargaining agreement at a rally and press conference Friday, November 16.
In May the workers voted to form a union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, after enduring years of wage theft, unsafe conditions, and verbal harassment from managers. Instead of recognizing the union, however, the restaurant’s former owners shut the store down on August 31, prompting nearly two months of protest that the current agreement brings to an end.
The agreement, which the union’s lawyer Eugene Eisner calls “unheard-of for low-wage, foreign-born workers in the restaurant industry,” was officially announced on October 26. It includes wage increases, paid vacation and sick days, grievance and arbitration procedures, and a union hiring hall.
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The store’s owners have promised that the restaurant, located at 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue, will reopen under the new agreement on December 17.
The rocky road to a union shop
The victory shows the importance of persistence. The situation looked too good to be true when, only a week after the store’s closure, new investors Anthony Illuzi and David Kaye stepped in and entered into a tentative agreement with the union. And sure enough, the agreement was soon in jeopardy.
First, the week of September 17, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association learned that the building’s new owners were considering leasing the space to Pax Wholesome Foods, a non-union chain. So the union and its supporters sent a petition to the owners letting them know a Pax opening would be met with constant protests.
Once it became clear that the landlord had signed a lease with Illuzzi and Kaye, however, the new owners turned around and pressured the union to give up some of its demands in exchange for a return to work. “We have suspicions that they were really banking on the workers exhausting their resources and their will to stay on the picket line,” said Nastaran Mohit of the Laundry Workers Center, which trained and supported the workers throughout the campaign.
If that was the case, they banked wrong. “I’ve never worked with a group of workers this conscientious,” Mohit said.
In addition to maintaining their picket, workers increased pressure by marching outside of other New York restaurants owned by the group of investors that originally backed the 63rd Street Hot and Crusty, but had withdrawn after the unionization drive. Workers at a Brick Oven Pizza on 14th Street, owned by the same group, are also trying to organize against wage-and-hour violations and verbal abuse. The investors tried to use Hot and Crusty’s temporary closure to deter workers there, threatening that if workers unionized, they also might lose their jobs.
“We knew they had a huge investment in how the 63rd Street unionization drive turned out,“ Mohit said. That made it even more important to keep the pressure on and show them that the workers would not be intimidated.
The union also demonstrated the depth of community support at an October 18 solidarity rally that drew 100 people, including representatives from major New York unions such as TWU and UNITE HERE.
Education strategy rewarded
The Hot and Crusty win is also a win for the Laundry Workers Center, which trained and supported the workers, and an endorsement of their strategy of educating immigrant workers to lead their own struggles. The LWC is returning to its mission of organizing the underpaid immigrant staffs of the city’s Laundromats, a campaign that has not yet gone public. But organizer Rosanna Rodriguez said it would apply the lessons of the Hot and Crusty struggle in the future, namely the importance of community support.
The future was on everyone’s lips at Friday’s press conference. “Today we are here supporting the Hot and Crusty workers, but tomorrow we support another campaign,” Hot and Crusty worker and organizer Mahoma López Garfias said.
Representatives from TWU Local 100, UNITE HERE, Occupy Wall Street’s Labor Outreach Council, Hunter College, and Golden Farm workers represented this victory as a springboard for other struggles, including the Wal-Mart protests planned for Black Friday.
“This is a beginning,” Christine Williams of TWU Local 100 said.
Community members also rejoiced. Richard Rosenthal, who lives in the building above Hot and Crusty, said he had written to the landlord to express his delight that the space had been leased to a unionized business.
The Hot and Crusty Workers Association has proved that with a combination of direct action, community support, and persistence, the most vulnerable workers in our country can win justice.