Unionized meat department workers from the chain of Queens’ Trade Fair grocery stores, who have rallied against unfair labor practices for the last six weeks, were paid a visit by an important City Council politico last Friday.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) told ralliers outside the 37th Street store in Jackson Heights that she is on their side.
“The owner might think he will get away with it and no one in city government will notice, but that’s not true,” Quinn said, while standing in the middle of a 70-person crowd. “We will be writing letters.”
In early March just under 100 employees struck for a few hours one day alleging that Trade Fair’s owner Farid Jaber, known as Frank, yelled and berated employees during contract negotiations. Jaber immediately locked out all striking employees and hired “temporary” full-time butchers and meat counter managers.
In the proposed contract, Trade Fair is presenting wage freezes for meat department employees, a reduction of hours from full-time to part-time, cuts to healthcare benefits and the withdrawal of a higher pay rate if an employee works on a Sunday. UFCW Local 342 countered with some wage increases, no reduction of workers’ hours, no changes to healthcare benefits and no loss of what the company calls “Sunday premium pay.”
Two weeks after the lockout Jaber hired back some of the employees, but not full-time. Employee Richard Findlay said Jaber did that to disqualify workers from collecting unemployment, making them more dependent on the future of their jobs.
“Under the laws of a lockout, Trade Fair is required to bring all of their union workers back to the same condition they were working under prior to the lockout, but they have failed to do so,” union spokeswoman Kate Meckler said.
Managers were reduced to butchers and all protesting workers were moved to other locations.
“Everyone went to another store,” former meat department manager Luis Cediel said. “It’s a tactic he’s using.”
“It’s crazy,” Findlay said, who used to manage the meat counter at the Trade Fair store on 30th Ave. in Astoria and now works part-time as a butcher at a location on 36th Street in Long Island City. “He has everyone all mixed up and frustrated and hoping people will quit. It’s all a game for him, but you are playing with people’s lives. We are not going to go away.”
The union has filed an unfair labor practice suit against Trade Fair with the National Labor Relations Board.
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said the unfair labor complaint is one in a list of violations committed by Trade Fair. Last September Jaber removed an illegal sidewalk extension at the Jackson Heights location.
Also, the store’s delivery trucks often block the avenue. In September driver John Muriel pushed Dromm and took his cell phone when the councilman tried to take a picture of his illegally parked truck. Muriel pleaded guilty in August to petit larceny, a misdemeanor.
“We are going to have inspectors out here issuing fines to go with the bad behavior Danny has outlined,” Quinn said.
Despite the City Council-level support, the effect the rallying has on customers runs the gamut.
“I came down here to watch these folks. I think they are really being exploited,” said K.C. Williams, who lives and works in the neighborhood. “I will absolutely not buy here. Trade Fair is not a good neighbor and this is the last straw.”
Another customer who lives five blocks away said the labor dispute is not enough to make him change his buying habits.
“I feel bad but I don’t want to go several blocks out of my way,” Hasam Morshed said.