TO MARKET, TO MARKET: UNIONS BATTLE TO SET UP SHOP

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In the ongoing struggle over unionizing the city’s downtown greengrocers, some owners have apparently come up with a creative technique: enlist a rival union. A group of labor groups, including the Mexican-American Workers Association, UNITE Local 169 and the Lower East Side Collective, has been pushing to unionize nearly a dozen greenmarkets in lower Manhattan over the last few years.

Most recently, they began a boycott in mid-January at Hudson Market on lower Hudson Street. Starting salary there, union reps claim, has been as low as $3 per hour, and employees work over 70 hours a week with no benefits. The UNITE local was also trying to unionize the store’s workers, and had held several well-attended meetings, most recently last Thursday night.

But the store’s managers had other plans. According to UNITE organizer Jeff Eichler, Hudson Market owner Hyong Kun Yi instead signed an agreement with local 1964 of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

At least some of the grocer’s employees say that they never agreed to be represented by the ILA. “We didn’t know that there was a contract or know what was in it,” said Sandra Rosero, a former employee of Hudson Market. “We know that [the ILA] go in there, go downstairs to talk to the boss and come out.” Neither the store’s management nor ILA representatives returned repeated phone calls from City Limits.

Under labor law, when one union signs a contract at a location, another union is not allowed to muscle in. A contract that does not have the support of a majority of the workers is also not legal, said Eichler.

“They want to put up a shield against us,” Eichler said. “We find it extremely troubling that Local 1964 has interfered with this effort.” A majority of Hudson Market employees have now signed with UNITE, Eichler said.

UNITE has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, charging both Yi and the ILA with unfair labor practices. The ILA is not known for aggressive organizing campaigns in New York City, though according to an arbitrator at the AFL-CIO, the longshoremen have tried to gain the exclusive rights to unionize greenmarket workers at a store on lower Fifth Avenue.

In that case, the AFL-CIO granted the rights to UNITE, which has now unionized seven grocery stores in the Lower East Side and is leading boycotts of three others.

Meanwhile, the boycott at Hudson Market has cut sales in half, said store manager Adrese Harris. “The fight’s not won in litigation,” said Eichler. “It’s won on the street.