Fruit Fight

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For Daniel Lucas, working the picket line in the cold for six hours a day is a vacation–literally. During his five years at the Adinah’s Farms greengrocery on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street, Lucas worked 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week making sandwiches and stocking shelves. His weekly pay: $300, in cash. He got no lunch or dinner break, catching a quick nibble in between customers and shipments, all for what added up to $3.60 a hour. No benefits, no overtime. And when another employee was out, he suddenly had twice the work. “If someone was off, we had to do the other job,” Lucas says, leaning nonchalantly against the police barricade set up for the picket.

It was these difficult conditions that pushed this store’s six Mexican workers to pursue union membership with Local 169 of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE. But that, in turn, pushed the store’s owner to fire them. So in August they took to the streets, asking neighbors to pass up the store that passed them over.

Outside the store, former patrons of Adinah’s toss supportive phrases at the protesters in English and Spanish, and nearby signs proclaim pro-worker and pro-union messages. “I feel for these guys because they’ve worked here so long, and they go and throw them out; it’s a damn shame,” says one resident. “We try not to let [people] shop here.”

In December, the National Labor Relations Board jumped in, issuing a ruling requiring owner Grace Lee to recognize the union and rehire the workers. That has yet to happen, but in the meantime the workers survive their indeterminate unemployment with a little help from the union. UNITE is hoping for a bigger payday eventually: If the U.S. Department of Labor proves that Lee’s workers made less than minimum wage, she’ll have to pony up back wages and overtime–a figure the union puts at $80,000 to $100,000. “I don’t feel so bad,” Lucas says of being out of work. “I’m glad I’m fighting for this.”

It’s a fight that has lit up the Lower East Side. With organizing by UNITE, the Mexican Workers Association, Lower East Side Community Labor Coalition and other groups, four other greengrocers are now haunted daily by pickets: Fuji Apple, Fruit and Vegetable, and two other stores owned by Lee, Graceland and Gracefully.

And the store-owners have been hit hard. With few Lower East Siders willing to cross a picket line, the greengrocers are under tremendous pressure. “It’s affecting us a lot,” says Michael Shin, whose parents have owned Fuji Apple for 20 years. He says that most of his workers were paid minimum wage. “We’re dying,” he adds.

The agitation on the Lower East Side has been bittersweet vindication for UNITE, after a campaign two years ago to unionize grocery workers in Brighton Beach failed. In that effort, as soon as organizers got workers interested in improving their lot, owners divided workers by firing some and raising the salaries of others, and conquered by intimidating the rest.

This time, community support has made all the difference. Idle workers pace restlessly inside Adinah’s Farms, and few customers dare come in. With such solid support, the workers aren’t so much waging a protest as maintaining a presence. They haven’t been vocal for months. Most days they quietly stand in front of the store, signs draped over their jackets.

“We don’t have to do anything,” says Manuel Guerrero, a union organizer. “We don’t have to chant anything. The community is already on our side.”