NEW YORK—Workers rights organizations in Bushwick, Brooklyn wagged their fingers at two retail stores during a march on Knickerbocker Ave. on Sunday, July 20.
Calling for an end to the exploitation of immigrant workers and insuring payment of at least the minimum wage, nearly one hundred local consumers and members from Make the Road New York (MRNY) and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) stopped in front of Vivi Women’s Wear and Associated Food Supermarket to reprimand alleged poor employee treatment.
According to ongoing investigations, the MRNY and the New York State Department of Labor estimates that the Associated Food Supermarket owes workers close to $2,000,000 in unpaid wages, which includes minimum wage and overtime pay. The marchers urged a boycott of the supermarket.
Many employees in the Bushwick area receive less than minimum wage, which is currently $7.15 per hour in New York State.
It is “pretty common to not pay minimum wage especially in non-food retail,” said Jeff Eichler, coordinator of the Retail Organizing Project, an initiative started by the RWDSU. Minimum wage laws are not “necessarily enforced with rigor” because inspectors are few, according to Eichler.
An employer that pays below minimum wage is subject to criminal prosecution and penalties, and may be required to pay interest and civil penalties up to 200 percent of the unpaid wages in addition to minimum wage underpayments, according the Department of Labor’s website.
The march also celebrated the organizations’ latest achievements—taking back over a million dollars of back wages and gaining the cooperation of several stores. Through legal actions against at least 16 stores, Knickerbocker Ave. retail workers have received a total of $1,092,000 in wages owed to them by employers.
Members of the march urged small businesses in the neighborhood to sign a Good Business Agreement, which permits their workers to unionize. Recently, six small retail stores on Knickerbocker signed a Good Business Agreement, making them the most recent in a total of 21 stores that have signed the agreement. The Good Business Agreement is a neutrality contract between employers and employees to allow unionization.
The contracts and compensation were won through the efforts of MRNY. With offices in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, MRNY works with the community to promote equal economic, political, and civil rights for low-income New Yorkers.
The organization is called Make the Road because “we believe that if we walk together, we can make a difference,” said Nieves Padilla, the workplace justice coordinator for the MNRY Brooklyn office.
Each Thursday, MRNY offers classes to “teach and train members to know their own rights,” including how to obtain records for their work, according to Padilla. The organization also works on voter registration and the education of new voters within communities.
In addition to educating members, MRNY also fights on behalf of individuals. For example, MRNY’s Workers in Action Committee pressured the Adriatic Italian Restaurant in Manhattan on behalf of multiple workers who were allegedly paid as little as $1.25 per hour.
Sunday’s march was one of many demonstrations by the ¡Despierta Bushwick! (Wake Up Bushwick) Campaign, which was launched by MRNY to inform workers of their rights and confront stores known to exploit workers in the Bushwick area.