Volume 74, Number 52 | May 04 - 10 , 2005

Villager photo by Robert Stolarik

A union picketer handed out a flier in front of Garden of Eden at 7 E. 14th St.

Benefits, not an apple, are issue at Garden of Eden

By Lincoln Anderson

To hear management tell it, Garden of Eden is a workers’ paradise. But a union trying to get the specialty food store to increase employee health benefits and improve working conditions claims there’s trouble in Eden.

For several weeks, picketers from Local 1500 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union have handed out fliers in front of Garden of Eden’s 7 E. 14th St. flagship store near Union Sq. The fliers accuse the market of not providing its employees with union-scale wages, not providing affordable health insurance and “subjecting workers to poor working conditions through fierce management tactics.”

Owned by two Kurdish Turkish brothers, Michael and Jon Coskun, Garden of Eden opened its first location 14 years ago and now has four stores employing 300 workers. The E. 14th St. store is five years old, the Chelsea store at 23rd St. and Seventh Ave. is eight years old and there are new stores on Montague St. in Brooklyn and 107th St. and Broadway. Another new market may be in the works on Third Ave. in the 20s to replace one there that recently closed.

Michael Coskun said when Garden of Eden recently opened its 107th St. store the picketers started there from “Day One” and now are picketing all four stores.

“I have no idea why they’re targeting us,” said Coskun. “We are a small, family-owned company — that’s all we are. We don’t have millions of dollars behind us. We can’t afford to give more. This is not a regular supermarket. We don’t sell paper towels, cleaning materials. We only sell food.”

Coskun said Garden of Eden offers its workers health insurance — the store pays 50 percent of the cost — offers life insurance, vacation time off, bereavement leave, holidays off and paid birthdays off. The store’s minimum starting wage is currently $7.50 an hour, Coskun said, noting, “That’s for somebody, kids come from [after] school, part time, has no experience at all.”

“I don’t see anybody [else] paying 100 percent at this time” for healthcare, Coskun noted. The store also gives a 20 percent employee discount.

Coskun added they are not hindering union organizing.

“You have [the] right to belong or not to belong. It’s up to our employees, not us,” he noted. The union has tried to organize Garden of Eden’s workers for the last five years, Coskun said, adding, of his workers, “We never stopped them” from trying to organize. He said the employees have not taken any votes on whether to organize.

U.F.C.W. Local 1500 also recently picketed outside Jefferson Market, another local food store, in a campaign that was supported by a coalition of Village clergy calling themselves Jobs With Justice. In that case, according to John Mallen, a Local 1500 organizer, the clergy joined because Jefferson Market fired an employee, Jose Luis Murio, in 2001 for trying to organize a union. Jefferson Market has denied anyone was fired or threatened for supporting a union.

To Coskun’s relief, the clergy so far haven’t joined the Garden of Eden pickets.

Local 1500’s Mallen said the goal for the moment isn’t to unionize Garden of Eden.

“This is not about an active organizing campaign. It’s more about informing the community of lack of standards that we feel aren’t being upheld by Garden of Eden,” he said. The family-owned chain “has reached the size now, with four stores — it’s very high-end margin, because of the specialty food it sells — it should be obligated to give their employees a certain level of pay and benefits,” he said. The most important thing, in the union’s view, is for the store to provide affordable healthcare. Mallen charged Garden of Eden’s plan is unaffordable for workers, who, he said, must pay $15 to $45 per week, depending whether the plan is for a single person or also spouse and family.

“Most workers, when they have to pay that kind of health coverage, can’t make a livable wage or won’t take healthcare,” he said. “We think that with public pressure and public support, Garden of Eden will raise their level of benefits.”

Mallen said because Garden of Eden’s business was “growing faster” they decided to stop picketing Jefferson Market — for now, at least — and focus on Garden of Eden.

“We decided to give Jefferson Market some time,” he said, “to give them a chance to improve things.”

Mallen said the Garden of Eden and Jefferson Market pickets are part of the union’s “It Takes a Village” campaign to target “new-style groceries that are relatively young and anti-union” in the area.

Two workers recently interviewed at Garden of Eden’s 7 E. 14th St. store, Lauro Quito, 35, and Daniel Rodriguez, 24, seemed pretty content with their working situation, though were not averse to hearing what a union might offer.

Quito, a grocery department supervisor, has worked there four years; after starting at $6 an hour, he now makes $10 an hour. He’s from Ecuador, where he used to tend bar at a golf and tennis club.

Rodriguez, an employee for two and a half years, started at $7.50 an hour and now makes $9.50 an hour. He’s from the Dominican Republic and is studying computers at T.C.I.

Quito said he pays $20 a week for health insurance.

“I don’t have complaints,” he said.

They both like working with Nicholas Kotsianas, the store’s upbeat and personable general manager, saying he’s better than the previous manager.

At the same time, they are curious about a union.

“Maybe, but we don’t know how the union works,” Quito said. “In my country, we don’t have unions.”

“I would like to know more about it,” said Rodriguez.

General manager Kotsianas is angry about the claims on the picketers’ fliers.

“In this country we have a constitutional right to demonstrate,” he noted, “but these are blatant lies.

“We run a tight ship. But it’s a clean ship. It’s a happy ship,” said Kotsianas, formerly a buyer for major European supermarket chains. “It’s not a sweatshop,” he said. “People smile in here. You can’t fake that.”

Coskun wanted to know how much the picketers make. The picketers are Hispanic, seemingly new immigrants. Some of the women appeared to speak no English but one of the men said they get $8 an hour and are “temporary workers.”

Asked if the picketers have legal status, Mallen said it’s not an issue, noting, “We don’t ask whether they’re residents or not.”

“Why are they picketing here and not a major food chain that just opened? — I won’t mention their name,” asked Kotsianas. He said the pickets in front of their store came the same day, March 16, the Whole Foods mega-store opened on Union Sq. S.

Mallen assured, “We will eventually do some sort of campaign at Whole Foods on a similar style — but we’re doing one employer at a time.”

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