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Greengrocer workers' victory

By Judi Cheng

New York

After five months on strike--picketing every day in front of greengrocery markets on Manhattan's Lower East Side--workers at two of the stores have won union recognition. Elated workers and their union supporters say it is a historic victory that will help pave the way for organizing greengrocer workers throughout the city. These workers are mostly Mexican immigrants, many of them undocumented.

Local 169 of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees has signed a union contract with two store owners. The contract provides workers for the first time with at least minimum wage, overtime pay, and health insurance, paid sick days and one-week vacation per year.

"It's a very small victory in terms of numbers, but in terms of hope for the future, it's tremendous," said Jerry Dominguez, director of the Mexican American Workers Association, the labor group that began the drive for unionization.

He explained: "This will send a message to shop owners and organized labor that we can organize against all odds. This will open doors for all workers in New York City."

There are 14,000 Mexican workers employed by the produce industry in New York. Most of them work 14-hour days, seven days a week in sweatshop conditions preparing fruits, vegetables and flowers. Most make less than minimum wage and receive no benefits.

The success behind this landmark victory is due first and foremost to the sacrifice of the immigrant workers of Local 169.

UNITE and the Lower East Side Community Labor Coalition joined together to organize effective support for the strikers. They joined forces to build community outreach, a boycott of the stores and student activity in solidarity with the workers.

In addition, a legal strategy by the union included complaints to the New York State Department of Labor, the state attorney general's office and the National Labor Relations Board.

Thirty immigrant workers braved the possibility of deportation and other penalties by testifying at hearings in the union's legal cases.

"This allows us to get in the front door in other neighborhoods where immigrant workers are working for less than minimum wage, and to beat back this exploitation city wide," said Mike Donovan, an organizer for Local 169.

Daniel Lucas, a striker and native of Hidalgo, Mexico, has been leafleting outside his former work place every day since August 1999. "Now that we have benefits, it's a big difference from before," he said. "We have dignity now, and we fought for these rights."

Dominguez and Donovan spoke highly of Local 169 President Ernesto Jofre's commitment to this immigrant worker struggle.

On Jan. 3, the union signed a contract with the owner of Adinah's and Fuji Apple groceries. With the contract signed, these striking greengrocer workers returned to their jobs.

The union's boycott campaign will continue at Fruit and Vegetable, on 7th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. Organizers say they will expand the campaign with the goal of unionizing workers at all 21 groceries in the East Village. Ultimately, they hope to negotiate directly with the Korean Produce Association.

For more information, readers can contact Jerry Dominguez and Local 169 at (212) 255-9655.

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