January 28, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – A new bill before the City Council which aims to shield grocery store workers from being unceremoniously canned, might be too broad and require some beefing up in order to protect the great many employees now working throughout the five boroughs.
The new measure is called the Grocery Store Retention Act [GWRA]. If ultimately approved, the GWRA would preclude the new owners of established supermarkets from terminating existing staff for 90 days.
Employees would need at least six months of on-the-job experience to qualify for protections.
Increasingly, supermarkets workers around the city, some with 10 to 20 or more years on the job, are finding themselves suddenly unemployed when a new store owner comes in and decides to “wipe the slate clean.”
It happened to workers in Queens two years ago, when the owner of the Trade Fair supermarket chain decided to sell his Jackson Heights outlet to new owners following a tumultuous labor dispute.
However, as presently proposed, the GWRA only applies to supermarket outlets with grocery departments totaling 10,000 square feet or more – or the size of three professional tennis courts.
“As many workers that we can cover would be my objective,” Councilman Daniel Dromm told LaborPress. “But it’s a good starting point.”
Councilman Dromm was heavily involved in the Trade Fair fight, and worked hard to preserve jobs. While supportive of the GWRA proposal, the councilman said that the 10,000 square foot threshold “may have to come down a little.”
“That’s a point that I think we should argue for,” Councilman Dromm added.
The grocery industry employees some 50,000 people throughout the city, most of them immigrants.
Councilman I. Daneek Miller [D-District 27], chair of the Committee on Civil Service & Labor, sponsored the GWRA, and expects hearings on the proposal to take place sometime in March.
Although confident that the effort is an important one, Councilman Miller said he “would like to have a lower number.”
“Sometimes you have to go with things you think you can move,” Councilman Miller told LaborPress.
Existing business owners often use the threat of closure to discourage support for unionization – while new owners sometimes take the opportunity to purge vocal union supporters among the staff.
But Councilman Miller insists that the GWRA is not a "card campaign," and is instead intended to protect increasingly vulnerable workers.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, urged support for the GWRA, saying that the measure is good for both workers and the community.
“Grocery workers should not be discarded like spoiled produce when a new employer takes over their store,” Applebaum said in a statement. “This legislation would ensure that workers and their families are protected during the transition period.”