Chano, a Mexican worker at Adinahs Farms on Avenue C, is receiving full wages and health benefits under an agreement brokered in 2002 by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. But other greengrocer workers say they are not.
Once a month, Chano sends $300 to $400 dollars home to his family that continues to reside in his pueblo (small town) in the impoverished Mexican state of Guerrero. We are trying to build a church, Chano explains in a sheepish and subtle voice and in broken Spanish. Chano is Mexican, but he is also indigenous, thus Spanish is his second language and Nahuatl his first. Like many Mexican immigrants in New York, he is not sure when he will be able to return home. I hope in a year or two, he says with a hopeful glimmer in his eye, giving an answer that is standard fare among Mexican migrant laborers. He has not seen his family in over 10 years.
While Chano now works six days and 72 hours a week (essentially, nine days a week if eight hours is considered a workday) and makes $450 a week at Adinahs Farms at Avenue C and E. Second St., life was even tougher for him and many other Mexicans working in the city not too long ago. Back then, Chano did not have a union or a contract and made substantially less than the minimum wage.
As former community and labor organizer Jerry Dominguez reminisced in a phone interview from his new location in the Bay area, I remember it very clearly, Ill never forget it. I walked up to one paisano [countryman] and asked him, How much do you earn each week? He answered $180.
This inequity spurred the start of the greengrocers organizing campaign.
Dominguez, who is Mexican and used to be a migrant worker in the tomato fields of Florida, began to organize meetings in Brooklyn as early as 1995, which led to vocal and visible protests in front of Korean-run greengrocer stores in 1998. The protests and pressure from the community lasted years.
At the height of the campaign, protests were frequent, pressure was high and even the attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, got in on the act when he fined three prominent greengrocers $315,000 in back wages for minimum-wage and overtime violations in November 2001.
After the fines and a year of intense negotiations, Spitzer enacted a code of conduct in September 2002 that was signed by almost two-dozen stores. The code is essentially a promise by greengrocer owners to compensate with at least the minimum wage and overtime pay for above 40 hours in a week. As a result, workers were supposedly going to receive at least $450 for their 72-hour workweeks, which in some cases was twice what many received before.
Dominguez called this the magic of immigrant organizing, that is, winning rights and enforcing laws for a population that is for all intents and purposes, considered to be illegal. As Dominguez explained, however, there are multiple levels of laws that protect undocumented workers, including international treaties the U.S. has signed, as well as its own domestic labor laws.
However, since the implementation of the code of conduct, improvements in working conditions for Mexican immigrants have been next to nonexistent. The great majority of the New York City greengrocer workforce estimated to be some 14,000 workers remains unorganized and without contracts (up to 70 percent, estimated Dominguez).
There are workers such as Jose, who works in one of the many East Village greengrocers that have come to once again, disobey labor laws and the code of conduct established by Spitzer. Jose, like many of the other newly arrived Mexican immigrants, is also from Guerrero. Traditionally, New York Citys Mexican immigrant population has come from Puebla (a state whose largest city is just an hour and a half south of Mexico City), but gradually more it is now coming from other states like Guerrero and Morelos.
Joses story is increasingly becoming a typical one. He has not been in New York City for more than two months and is earning $200 a week with the normal 72-hour-a-week workload. When told about the fact that his Korean managers were violating the law in paying him such a low salary, the youth of no more than 20 years nervously responded in Spanish, I dont have any papers and I just got here . . . dont worry, Im content. Jose, who was visibly scared at the questions, asked that his real first name and store location not be identified.
Other workers are more fortunate, like Santiago, who nevertheless works all night long at Graceland (at Avenue A and Second St.) for less than the code of conducts prescribed minimum of $450 a week for a 72-hour work week he makes only $ 400.
We tell them to pay us more, Santiago explains, but they just tell us to work at another place if we dont like the pay here.
Stories like these are a sharp contrast from the height of the greengrocer campaign, when Dominguez was at the helm of leading and organizing. Much has changed since then, as the first union that started organizing Mexican immigrants has changed its leadership and also given over many of the shops it originally organized.
Mike Donovan, an organizer for Local 169 UNITE!, the local that Dominguez worked for, explained how his local was forced to hand over the shops it had organized to Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. According to Donovan, Local 1500 began to organize laundry workers, Local 169s turf, and threatened it would not stop doing so unless Local 169 gave up all but two of the greengrocer shops it had organized. According to Donovan, Local 1500 has not taken up the cause of organizing immigrants with the same fervor that Local 169 once had.
Indeed, the once highly visible greengrocer campaign has lost much of its original fervor and connection to the community.
Theres nothing going on now, no protests, no pressure, nothing. If there was, theyd be paying us more, Chano says, subsequently referring to a greengrocer up the block who no longer has a union thanks to turnover and more than anything else, the fear new immigrants and employees of the store have when it comes to organizing.
Dominguez said that many workers who are without unions have managed to nonetheless negotiate their own independent contracts with the owners. However, that is not the case for Santiago, whom when asked if there was a union or at least a contract, flashed back a befuddled expression. No, nobody has ever told us of these options, he says.
Conversely, Chano does know full well about his union and the benefits of being in one, as he remarked about his tarjetita (little card) that symbolizes he has a healthcare plan through his employer. He also points out that at other greengrocers, non-unionized ones, workers are routinely fired. No, nobody gets fired here, but at other places without unions, they fire a lot of people a lot of the time, says Chano.
Chano, who is among the most well-off immigrant laborers, still has to contend with long hours and low pay that never seems to be increased. Since the pay is pegged to the minimum wage, pay increases are few and far between and in fact have never taken place since the code first went into effect.
Pay increases or not, undocumented Mexican migrant workers continue to be a vital part of the Mexican economy. Currently, 25 million Mexicans live in the U.S., of which some 8 million are without documents. Behind oil revenues, remittance payments have long been the second pillar of the Mexican economy, as Mexicans sent home upwards of $14 billion last year alone, setting a new record. Mexico also continues to send home more money than any other of its Latin American counterparts.
Nevertheless, Mexican workers in New York City like Jose and Santiago would surely like to see further improvements to being a greengrocer worker, which still has working conditions that, at best, comply with the mere bare minimum standards set down by the law and at worst fail to accomplish even that.