Volume 74, Number 28 | November 17 - 22, 2004

Clergy seeks talk on workers with Jefferson Market owner

By Albert Amateau

A group of Village clergy associated with New York Jobs With Justice has been trying to meet with the owner of Jefferson Market, a food market that has been serving the neighborhood for 70 years, about allegations that employees are threatened with dismissal for trying to organize a union.

However, Louis Montuori, a principal in the store at 250 Sixth Ave., denies that anyone was fired or threatened for supporting a union. And after a scheduled meeting with the clergy group was cancelled last month, the two sides are at loggerheads.

Three years ago, an attempt by Local 1500 to organize Jefferson Market failed when, according to Montuori, the union backed out of a vote at the last minute.

Members of Jobs With Justice insist the group is not connected with any labor union but has been working for the past six months to insure that low-wage immigrant workers are treated fairly and with respect and dignity. But Montuori last week scoffed at the claim. “They say they’re not part of a union but my lawyer says differently. They support union organizing,” he said.

In an Oct. 11 letter to Montuori, a partner in Jefferson Market with his mother and brother, the group said, “Jefferson Market has always been one of the responsible employers in our neighborhood, but over the last couple of years that has begun to erode.”

The letter was signed by Rev. Karen Senecal of Judson Memorial Church; Rev. Mary Foulke of St. Luke’s-in-the-Fields Church; Rev. Bryan Hooper of Washington Sq. United Methodist Church; Rev. Sam Andreades of the Village Church; Barbara E. Davis of First Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Shirley Idelsohn of Hebrew Union College; Rev. John McGuire of St. Joseph’s Church and Rabbi Azelet Cohen of Beth Simcha Torah synagogue.

The letter outraged Montuori, whose late father, John, acquired Jefferson Market in 1962. “The suggestion that after 42 years in a business started by my father that we treat our employees unfairly is ludicrous. A lot of the people who signed the letter are the same people who come in here every year and ask donations to their church or cause — and we contribute,” he said last week.

A meeting between Montuori and the clergy scheduled for Oct. 21 at Jefferson Market did not take place, when the day before the meeting, Montuori cancelled. “I wanted to change it to a neutral place,” he said. But a delegation of clergy, led by Loren Thomas, a student at Jewish Theological Seminary and a Jobs With Justice organizer, turned up at the store anyway.

Montuori wasn’t there at the time and felt the visit was a betrayal of trust. He said last week that one of his employees recognized a union organizer among the group. “I don’t want to talk to them under any circumstances,” he said. “If they want to boycott the store they can go ahead and put the lives of 75 people who work here at risk,” he said.

Rev. Hooper, who was among the clergy delegation that went to the store, insists there were no union organizers among them.

“We prefer not to do a boycott,” said Jobs With Justice’s Thomas. “We want to do what we can working together, but he refuses to meet with us.” Thomas said she has spoken to 17 Jefferson Market employees who have told her that the store discriminates against immigrant workers by paying a lower starting wage than the “white” employees. One longtime employee who worked in the Jefferson Market kitchen was fired for union organizing, she added.

Montuori disputes the claim, saying the employee was laid off in the spring along with 15 others because of a downturn in business and was not singled out for any reason. “My brother, my nephew, my mother, two sisters, my uncle and my brother-in-law and I all took a cut in pay. My brother and mother and I took a 25 percent cut,” he said.

But members of the Village clergy are still hoping for a meeting with Montuori. “I’d love to know his perspective on things,” said Rev. Hooper. “We’re trying to build relationships with employers in the Village and Jefferson Market is our people — partners in the community. We’d like them to be a good example and a leader.”

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