By Steve Wishnia
Queens, NY—“Who’s the rat?” called the man in a Grinch costume. “Trade Fair!” answered the crowd standing in 26-degree cold in front of a shuttered Jackson Heights supermarket on the morning of Dec. 13. “¿Que queremos?” he asked again, as a woman jingled Christmas bells. “¡Trabajo! ¡Justicia!” the crowd shouted back. “Not nice what they did to you people,” said a sixtyish woman passing by. Watch Video of Trade Fair Workers
The 75 to 100 people calling for “work” and “justice” included some of the 52 workers at the supermarket, the Trade Fair on 37thAvenue, who suddenly learned they were losing their jobs at the end of their shifts Dec. 9. Farid Jaber, the owner, had sold the store.
“At 7:35, they told everybody to go,” said cashier Elsy Olmedo. “We were all surprised they were closing for no reason.” Others found out when they showed up for work the next morning. “They didn’t tell us anything,” said Rafael Polanco, a deli clerk who’d worked there for 11 years. “We returned to work and the manager threw us out of the store. He said there was no more work.”
Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Local 338, which represented the 44 “front of store” workers terminated, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 342, which represented the eight in the meat department, organized the protest. Joined by State Senator Jose Peralta, Assemblymember Francisco Moya, and City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, they are demanding that Mohammed Haque, owner of the Amana Key Foods that will open in the space, hire all 52 workers.
Local 338 president John Durso called the closing “outrageous,” especially that it came suddenly and barely two weeks before Christmas. Jaber, who owns several other Trade Fair supermarkets, has “a history of violating ethics,” he added.
“He’s a bad employer,” said Local 338 field director Jack Caffey Jr.
Earlier this year, Local 338 discovered that Jaber had been claiming that his stores’ baggers were “independent contractors” and paying them less than minimum wage. He still owes several hundred thousand dollars in back wages from a 2010 National Labor Relations Board settlement, said Caffey, and hadn’t paid into the union’s health and pension fund for at least nine months—which might have cancelled the workers’ health insurance if the store had stayed open.
The store’s closing might be illegal under the NLRB settlement, Caffey added, because it said Jaber was not permitted to sell any stores in the chain until he’d paid the full $1.8 million.
Local 342 also won an NLRB settlement against Jaber, said spokesperson Kate Meckler, after he locked out about 100 meat-department workers last March—but he hasn’t given them their full hours back and owes more than $200,000 in back pay for other contract violations.
“I used to shop here every day until they locked out the meat department,” Danny Katz, who lives on the block, told the crowd. Noting the police ordering protesters to keep the sidewalk clear, he added, “I find it profoundly unfair that if a working person breaks the law, he gets arrested, but the owner of this store can repeatedly break the law and keep going.”