Westside Market Comes to the “East Village”

The Westside Market is opening a store on Third Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets.

_MG_2524
Westside Market on Third Avenue.

Local news sites and bloggers are beside themselves with giddiness, focussing on their family-owned, immigrant, rags-to-riches appeal: the usual Horatio Alger crap.

And eco-friendliness! What new store would be complete without eco-friendliness?

The Westside Market may have risen to its prominence by hard work, but it was the over-worked employees who did it. Over-worked and subjected to unsafe working conditions, such as what killed 20-year-old Raymundo Juarez-Cruz, an immigrant from Mexico, at their Broadway and 110th Street store. Police investigating the death said a safety switch on the compactor had been overridden.

    Patrick Purcell, the director of organizing for Local 1500, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said Mr. Juarez-Cruz’s accident was indicative of the working conditions endured by employees of many nonunion supermarkets.

    “These machines are something that you should be working with supervision after being properly trained,” Mr. Purcell said. He said that in stores where the union represents workers, there are clear signs and directions on the compactors. 1

* * *

When this same Upper West Side location closed in 2004, the Columbia Spectator wrote about how workers had been treated:

    Modou Dia, who worked at Westside for 17 years, said, “I work 72 hours a week for the last 10 years. I never got no holiday, no sick pay, no overtime, no vacation. No even ‘thank you.’ He no even tell us he gonna close [today].”

    Liapat Ali, who worked in the deli section at Westside for 17 years, said, “The store made money from selling expired food. They would repackage things after they expired and resell them. … I’m 51 years old. Where am I gonna go? No pension, no severance, nothing.” 2

* * *

Westside Market is not alone in this. The following information is based on a survey of over 100 workers in gourmet grocery stores in Chelsea and the West Village:

    Poverty wages, and no pay increases: The average reported wage was just $7.50 per hour, and cashiers started at $6.50 per hour – that’s $13,000 a year working full-time. The highest wage was $9.00 per hour. At many of the stores, workers did not receive annual pay increases.

    Few benefits, if any: Only a few stores offered health benefits. And in the few cases where health insurance was offered, the benefits were too expensive, workers had to be full-time, and had to wait 10-12 months to become eligible.

    Long hours and no over-time pay: Full-time workers often had to work up to 60 hours per week – with no overtime pay, a violation of state and federal wages laws. At the same time, many part-time workers wanted more hours but couldn’t get them.

    Discrimination: Women, undocumented immigrants, and workers with limited English proficiency earned the least and had to work the hardest.

    Little upward mobility: Most of the stores hired their managers from the outside, rather than promoting from within. As a result, entry-level workers were largely black or Latino, while most managers were white.

    Abusive working conditions: Breaks were short and infrequent. Almost no store allowed sick days. Sexual harassment, verbal abuse and threats were frequent, especially against immigrants.3

But it’s eco-friendly!

* * *

None of this information was hard to come by. I found it in a short time using Google, while at work, no less! Local news sites and bloggers who take the time to interview the owners certainly have time to interview the workers too. Of course, as I found when interviewing workers at bodegas, they’re reluctant to speak, for fear of losing their jobs. But the bloggers could report this, and they could take the time to find out the working conditions existing in the stores they gush over.

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1Supermarket Worker Is Killed By Cardboard-Box Compactor,
accessed Oct. 3, 2014.
2Westside Market Closes its Doors After 30 Years on Broadway,
accessed Oct. 3, 2014.
3Is your Gourmet Grocery a Sweatshop? A Report on Working Conditions at Upscale Groceries in New York City, accessed on Oct. 4, 2014.

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Quilas Meets No 7-Eleven

I found a new site recently: GoAnimate

Expect to see more animations on Quilas in the future!


 
(What they’re talking about.)

N7E and Labor (Again): A Recapitulation

When discussions take place across separate blogs, and in the Comments sections of even different blogs, the focus begins to blur. Early on, I maintained that, as opposed to a bodega, a 7‑Eleven moving into the vacant space at Avenue A and 11th Street would raise the income of the neighborhood, against the assertion that 7‑Eleven would: 1) reduce the number of jobs; and 2) lower income in the neighborhood via the requirement that part of the profits be sent to the corporate headquarters. I believe I defended this position adequately at The Local Economy?.

Since that time, the conversation has shifted. This is a recent post from the leader of N7E (click on the image if you want to read the entire screed):

rob-on-wages

There appear to be two assertions here — only one of them is direct:
“…replacing a 7‑Eleven with a restaurant in NYC would improve the wage prospects of immigrant workers, documented as well as undocumented.” But the inclusion of wage statistics just before that indicates that they’re making the argument that wages in a restaurant would be higher (for the cook, in any case) than for clerks in a 7‑Eleven, and that a restaurant is, therefore, preferable.

There really isn’t anything to say about “improve the wage prospects of” except that it does not follow from “Mean average for a cooks wage…” just before it. You find this all through their literature. And it’s ambiguous. “[I]mprove the job prospects of” makes more sense. They may be right that it lowers the “wage prospects” of undocumented workers, but they’re going to have to tell us exactly how many people they’re talking about. Are they ready to claim that X number of jobs at less than minimum wage, with employer threats of deportation, are preferable to a similar number of jobs at ≥ minimum wage, with the increased opportunity to organize a union? (I’m going to deal with the topic of organizing in a future post. For now, let this suffice as an example of what 7-Eleven workers can do. I’ve also maintained that, as a large company, 7-Eleven is susceptible to pressure from outside its workforce.)

Now, to the money question. To begin with, why would they cite the mean, average wage for cooks across the country after reading what I posted in Restaurants, which examines the pay of restaurant workers in New York City? Hmmm? Maybe they just skimmed it, and thought “Look, numbers. We should get some numbers too.”

quilas-restaurants-min-wage1

The problem with the BLS figures they cite2 is that they’re not accurate hourly rates. Many are extrapolated from flat rates divided into hours scheduled per week. Others are determined by taking the mean, average annual income (e.g., $23,300), dividing it by 52 weeks, then dividing that by 40 hours, as if cooks worked eight hours a day, five days per week. As already established:

quilas-restaurants-typical-hours1

$23,300 ÷ 52 weeks ÷ 6 days ÷ 12 hours = $6.22/hour.
÷ 10 hours = $7.47/hour.
÷ 8 hours = $9.33/hour.

As we narrow the discussion to increasingly-specific details, like the hourly rate of a cook in a hypothetical restaurant, it becomes more difficult to generalize. A 7‑Eleven at that location that hires ten people instead of seven, or a restaurant that employs a chef instead of a regular cook, limits the inferences we can make. But there are a couple of observations that can be made with certainty: there is no evidence that a restaurant would be significantly better than a 7‑Eleven for either total number of people hired or total wage receipts; and everyone who works at the 7‑Eleven will be paid at least minimum wage, while many of those who work at the restaurant will not be. It’s nothing to write home about, but this discussion has never been about why 7‑Eleven is good, just about why it’s less bad.

***

Finally, almost as an aside, I will address this last claim:

    “The majority (66 percent) of low-wage workers are not employed by small businesses, but rather by large corporations.”3

I have no doubt that this is true, but it’s completely irrelevant to the discussion! (You find this all through their literature.)

It’s funny they should refer to this report. If they had bothered to turn to page 2, they’d have seen the following:

nelp-table-1

Oh well. This isn’t their forte, after all.

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1Unregulated Work in the Restaurant Industry in New York City
2Occupational Employment and Wages News Release
3Big Business, Corporate Profits, and the Minimum Wage

No 7-Eleven NYC, Labor, and “Free Markets”

This past Saturday (April 6), the local small-business association No 7‑Eleven NYC (N7E) held an event in Tompkins Square Park. This is how they advertised it:

n7e-tsp-announcement

I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it — I usually have a lot of work to do on Saturdays. As luck would have it, though, my mid-afternoon appointment got cancelled, so I was able to go. This is my review.

I guess the first thing I’d say is that N7E is undisciplined. They were supposed to begin at 1:00pm, but none of them arrived on time. Reverend Billy, an invited guest of theirs, paced back and forth waiting for them. They finally showed up around 1:10, carrying their signs and Wheel of Fortune.

I will discuss their activities in another post (perhaps). Today, I’ll just limit myself to their writings. This is the flier they handed out (I commend them for printing double-sided; at least they don’t waste paper):

n7e-tsp-flier1 n7e-tsp-flier2

Don’t strain your eyes trying to read it; I’ll enlarge the points I want to discuss.

n7e-tsp-flier1-blurb2

This is just deceitful. 7‑Eleven employs between seven and ten people per store (depending on the location), up to three-times more than a bodega.

The labor issue is probably the most significant one when comparing 7‑Eleven with bodegas. I’d like to point out something that happened just last week:

The workers at fast-food restaurants across the city went on strike. This is something that could never happen with bodega workers, for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that bodega workers are fragmented. Concentration of capital can enhance the solidarity of the workers, as more are brought into cooperation with each other by working in bigger firms.

On their web site, N7E’s propagandists insists that, in addition to employing more people, bodegas are, for workers, superior to chain stores, because bodega owners will hire convicted felons. I would love to see the statistics on this claim! However, on a more relevant note, they ignore that bodegas are exempt from most labor and health & safety laws:

  • Unemployment Insurance – Employees are paid in cash, so there is no record of their employment.
  • OSHA Requirements – If you have fewer than 25 employees, your penalty is cut by 60 percent. If your business has fewer than 10 employees, you’re exempt from many requirements that obligate you to report workplace injuries.
  • Discrimination Laws – Federal laws against discrimination in the workplace do not always apply to small businesses. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to employers with 15 or more employees. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies only to employers of 20 or more people.
  • Employee Health Insurance – Beginning in 2014, employers will be expected to pay a “shared responsibility fee” for health insurance coverage under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. Small businesses are exempt from this rule. If your company has fewer than 50 employees, you have no healthcare responsibilities.1

Because bodegas workers are paid in cash, no taxes are withheld, leaving them with a large tax liability at the end of the year, and with no Social Security credits. Bodegas also frequently hire undocumented workers, whose protections are nil. Not only can they be fired for no reason, they are oftentimes threatened with deportation if they raise any objection.

nelp12

***

N7E claims that 7‑Eleven’s presence in the neighborhood threatens the “free market”.

n7e-tsp-flier2-blurb1

I’ve already discussed this claim with an N7E ideologue in the Comments section of another blog, but I will point out to them, once again, that rather than it being threatened, this is exactly how the “free market” operates:

    The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities demands, [all else being equal], on the productiveness of labour, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capitals beat the smaller. It will further be remembered that, with the development of the capitalist mode of production, there is an increase in the minimum amount of individual capital necessary to carry on a business under its normal conditions. The smaller capitals, therefore, crowd into spheres of production which Modern Industry has only sporadically or incompletely got hold of. Here competition rages in direct proportion to the number, and in inverse proportion to the magnitudes, of the antagonistic capitals. It always ends in the ruin of many small capitalists, whose capitals partly pass into the hands of their conquerors, partly vanish. [Emphasis mine]

I’m certainly not against fighting the “free market,” but people who know better can see N7E doesn’t know what they’re saying. A real grassroots campaign would be up-front about wanting to subvert the “free market” in their effort to establish the type of neighborhood they desire. They would understand that there’s no way that could be avoided. They would advocate for the people who work in the bodegas, instead of for the owners. They might even want to restrict the number of bodegas, as even they realize there is an over-abundance of them:

n7e-tsp-flier1-blurb1

***

The same organization that works to protect the rights of undocumented workers has an unfavorable assessment of bodegas as places to shop, as well:

nelp23

***

So this was an assessment of parts of their most current flier. I addressed their main fallacies. In the second bullet-point on page two, they claim that there is a ban in New York City on the sale of sodas over 16 ounces, which isn’t true, but isn’t worth the time to refute at any length.

I shot some video of the event. I have to watch it again to see if I want to comment on it. I might just upload it to YouTube and post a link to it.

=-=-=-=-=

1Small Business Exemptions
2Good Food and Good Jobs for Underserved Communities
3Unregulated Work in the Grocery and Supermarket Industry in New York City

The Bodega Walk or: Unintended Consequences

You may remember from such posts as No 7-Eleven on Avenue A that I was was unable to attend the Bodega Walk held February 2, so I decided I would visit the bodegas myself. I did that this weekend. I can’t say that I discovered anything to challenge the assumptions I wrote about earlier, but I did discover one thing, one unintended consequence of the bodega walks, which I’ll address at the end of this post.

I put together a list of questions that I would ask the owners and the the employes, respectively. When I first thought about doing this, I had in mind to speak to the employees as well as the owners, but then I realized that no employee would be able to speak freely with the owner present — this is true regardless of the job — so I abandoned that idea. I decided to ask the owners the Employee questions. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t know the answers, after all.

These are the questions I prepared:

To owners:
Do you own this building?
How much do you pay in rent?
Do you live in this neighborhood?
How many people work for you?
Are you worried about 7-Eleven moving into the space on Avenue A and 11th?
What do you think the greatest impact will be on your business?
What are your best-selling items?

To employees:
Are you paid at least minimum wage?
Are you paid in cash or by check?
Do you get paid sick days? Vacation days?
Are you paid time-and-a-half for overtime?

In all of these bodegas, I met only one owner. It seems that, while Sunday afternoon was a good time for me to venture out, it’s not the time when most owners are on the premises. I asked him the Owner questions above: he does not own the building; he declined to answer the rent question; he lives in the neighborhood; he employs three people; he thinks the 7-Eleven “on the corner” will have a big impact on his business. Since he specified the corner, I asked if another bodega opening on the corner would have the same impact, or was it because it was a 7-Eleven that the impact would be negative? He wasn’t sure. He thinks the greatest impact on his business will be that 7-Eleven has cheaper products. “I have Boar’s Head,”(1) he said. He didn’t know what his best selling items were: “Sandwiches, Cheerios…”.

Then I asked him the Employee questions. I have to say that none of his answers were convincing. Are your employees related? A shrug of the shoulders and a hesitant Yeah. Maybe he thought I meant related to each other? Do you pay your employees at least minimum wage? An equivocating Yes. (It may be that he was caught off-guard by the question and had to quickly think of the ramifications of answering it, but it left me wondering.) Are they paid in cash or by check? Cash. Do they receive paid sick/vacation days? Puckering his lips and raising his shoulders, Yeah. Really? Yeah. The way he responded, I thought that maybe he didn’t understand the question. I thanked him for his time, and set out for the other stores.

At none of the other stores was the owner present. At one, I spoke with a Manager. He said he couldn’t answer the Owner questions, but for Employees he answered: minimum wage, paid in cash, no sick days. In another place, an employee answered all of my Employee questions without hesitation, but told me: You know, 7-Eleven employees don’t have paid sick days either. Only when you have a union do you get those things. At another, one of the employees became very agitated when I asked my questions. He complained about people coming into the store — seven people in the past week, according to him — asking all of these questions about 7-Eleven. He said he was not the owner nor the manager, but told the other employee not to answer any of my questions, and told me I should leave.

This is where the unintended consequences come in. Many bodegas employ undocumented workers. With all of the attention being focussed on them — with the tours and the follow-up visits — I suspect many of these workers go home at night fearful they will lose their jobs, or be deported. Maybe it’s unlikely, but they don’t know who all of these people are, coming in all of a sudden, asking questions. It’s not my intention to expose undocumented workers, but to point out that focussing attention on these bodegas might end up hurting the people most vulnerable. I’m not sure what the No 7-Eleven people hope to achieve with their bodega walks, but if nothing else, they should know that they are affecting the workers in ways they may not have considered. It may be that they don’t care, given some of the comments I’ve seen in other blogs on this topic, and the fact that the leaders of this effort are small-business owners themselves. But if they don’t, it’s something the people in the neighborhood should care about.

If 7-Eleven is to be compared unfavorably to them, then we need to take a broader look at bodegas. All of the workers in the stores I visited are paid in cash. That means that not only are the owners not paying into Social Security, but no unemployment is paid either, so that when employees lose their jobs, they can’t claim unemployment benefits. They won’t even be able to prove they worked. I didn’t get to ask anyone if they were paid time-and-a-half for overtime, but I wouldn’t bet on it. 7-Eleven employees do not get paid sick days, no paid health insurance, and have no prospect for advancement.(2) The thing that puts them in a better position is that they work for a company with a visible profile, and have the chance to organize, the way Starbuck’s and Walmart employees have been.

The situation for workers is bad everywhere. To the degree that the people opposing 7-Eleven are apathetic to the conditions of the people who work in the bodegas, or at 7-Eleven, I cannot bring myself to support their effort.

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(1) Boar’s Head negotiates deals with retailers that in some cases make its meats the only premium brand in the store.
(2)
rocunited-7-eleven
Chart by Restaurant Opportunities Center United.