Volume 76, Number 19 | September 27 - October 3, 2006

Gourmet markets say unions are cooking up stories

By Anindita Dasgupta

For the past seven months, picketers from United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 have stood outside Balducci’s at 14th St. and Ninth Ave. They hand out fliers urging consumers to boycott the store for “refusing to uphold the working standards of New York City,” “refusing to work together with community leaders, labor groups and elected leaders” and “not modifying the price structure to meet needs of the surrounding community.”

Brian, a picketer handing out fliers one recent rainy morning, said that sometimes Balducci’s workers come outside and ask about the fliers, while others say they want to wait to see if other workers are interested in starting the union. The picketers plant themselves outside the store five days a week, eight hours a day.

Bari “Pop” Balducci and his son, Andy opened the original Balducci’s store on Ninth St. in 1946. Now under new ownership, Balducci’s today has 10 stores in five states, with three in Connecticut and two in Manhattan.

Located in a former bank building, despite its fancy interior, the Balducci’s store on 14th St. is feeling the impact of the picketing, claimed Local 1500’s director or organizing, Pat Purcell.

“It’s very clear they’re going to go under,” he said.

“They sank their ship when they wouldn’t talk to us,” he said. Balducci’s refused to allow Local 1500 to speak to the workers about unionizing, Purcell said. “They made the mistake of not factoring in the human element in New York. This is a labor town.”

However, in a phone interview, Melissa Daly, a Balducci’s spokesperson, dismissed Local 1500’s accusations that the store doesn’t treat its workers fairly and flatly denied that it would close.

“Balducci’s pay scale and benefits are competitive with other specialty grocery stores,” she said. She said that despite the statements on Local 1500’s fliers that Bear Stearns Merchant Banking, one of Balducci’s investors, was canceling any further expansion of Balducci’s in New York City, Balducci’s is not planning any major expansions at this time, and is, “focusing on existing stores.”

“The 14th St. store is doing really, really well,” Daly added.

Indeed, at noon on a recent weekday, the 14th St. Balducci’s appeared to be doing a very brisk business.

Established in 1937, Local 1500 represents over 22,000 workers in New York from grocery stores like King Kullen, D’Agostinos, Gristede’s and Shop Rite. For the last two years, they have worked on a campaign to unionize gourmet stores all over New York City. They picketed outside Jefferson Market for three months, Garden of Eden for one year and are now entering their eighth month of picketing in front of Balducci’s.

Their campaign against Jefferson Market on Sixth Ave. at 10th St. was going well, said Purcell, adding that it aroused a lot of support from the community. But Jefferson Market was facing new competition from the Whole Foods Market, which had opened on 14th St., and Local 1500 decided to stop picketing, according to Purcell.

“Not to say that we’re happy with them,” assured Purcell, hinting that eventually the union may return to Jefferson Market. Jefferson Market’s owners declined comment.

Local 1500’s efforts toward Garden of Eden on W. 14th St. near Fifth Ave. may have paid off. United Food & Commercial Workers International Union Local 348S is organizing a union at Garden of Eden and reportedly making headway. John Fazio, of Local 348S, claimed Garden of Eden is three-quarters of the way to being unionized, though a contract hasn’t officially been signed yet. But Garden of Eden strongly denies the store is near to unionization and says its employees are “happy.”

However, Purcell said that on Tuesday he was informed by Local 348S that a contract will be signed for a union at Garden of Eden’s four stores starting either Oct. 1 or Nov. 1.

Purcell said Local 1500 is not upset Garden of Eden decided to work with a different union.

“The important thing is that the workers have the chance to unionize,” he said.

Even though they pulled their picketers off the line at Garden of Eden, Local 1500’s work was far from done.

“After Garden of Eden, we immediately turned our attention to Balducci’s,” said Purcell. While they continue picketing Balducci’s, Local 1500 is on the brink of another phase of their campaign to unionize New York City’s most exclusive gourmet markets.

Purcell said they will most likely target Gourmet Garage and very likely Trader Joe’s, while other stores being considered include Citarella and Jefferson Market again.

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