In Immigrant Struggle, Occupy’s Presence Still Felt

For twenty-three immigrant workers at a franchise of a Manhattan bakery chain called Hot and Crusty, the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street couldn’t be timelier.

On Saturday — three-and-a-half months after the workers voted to form a union, and just over a week after being locked out of their jobs — workers and organizers on the picket line announced that the Upper East Side store is being sold to investors willing to recognize the Hot and Crusty Workers’ Association. The final status of the deal is still up in the air, with contract negotiations looming. But the HCWA has already won a hiring hall — the right to approve new hires — and all the workers who supported the campaign are expected to return to work in two weeks.

Shortly after nationwide demonstrations on September 17 will mark the first anniversary of the renaissance of mainstream class consciousness in the United States, the Hot and Crusty workers will likely celebrate their improbable victory over the store’s previous owner, hedge fund manager Mark Samson.

“I feel very happy after they gave us the good news,” Margarito Lopez said through an interpreter on Saturday. “I want to say thank you to the community for the support.”

The significance of the HCWA’s victory goes beyond those directly involved. A campaign to organize immigrant restaurant workers — some of whom are undocumented — might have had a profoundly different outcome without the Occupy movement. The campaign is a testament to what OWS inspired tactics can achieve.

“I think it’s great,” Mahoma Lopez, another Hot and Crusty worker, said of Occupy.

“Everybody in the labor movement, we have to learn to be more radical and take more actions,” he added.

Fed up with long hours, abuse and sub-minimum wages, some of the workers eventually ended up at Zucotti Park after starting a free eight week organizing crash course at the Laundry Workers Center (another grassroots institution about to celebrate its first birthday). Some of the employees then joined the Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group, an OWS committee formed to address the lack of immigrant voices in Occupy. Through that milieu, the workers complemented their grassroots campaign by plugging in to New York’s mushrooming activist network.

“The community support and the Occupy support in this campaign were absolutely critical,” said Nastaran Mohit, an organizer with the Laundry Workers Center. Occupiers and other activists provided a solid “community support system,” she said. They helped spread the word about the campaign, and attended demonstrations on short notice.

The activists were also willing to carry out radical demonstrations that the HWCA supported but did not directly take part in (for undocumented immigrants, risking arrest is not a viable option). Six activists, for example, were arrested on August 31 — the last day before the lockout. It was a gesture appreciated by the store’s employees.

“These kinds of [radical] actions make companies move in favor of the workers,” Mahoma Lopez said. “If we take only the legal way, we could lose our jobs and stay waiting for years to do something.”

But most importantly, the power of this campaign was intensified by remarkable sympathy from locals not typically supportive of organized labor. On Saturday, one poodle-walking passerby engaged with an organizer by politely expressing sympathy with Samson and lamenting the “high cost of doing business.” Another non-poodle owning critic said the workers could find another job and that when she was laid off two years ago, she started her own business.

Yet many labor-skeptic locals supported HCWA members, Mohit said, for the same reason that Occupy burgeoned: it wasn’t driven by a political party or union bureaucrats. The HWCA was founded by familiar faces pushing back against 70 hour, seven day work weeks and hostile working conditions. Mohit said that the organic nature of the campaign muted the typical Upper East Sider’s visceral disgust for pro-union activism. When scornful locals saw the workers walk the picket, their tone would soften.

“These are the workers they get their coffee from every morning,” she said. “They’d recognize the person who made their salad every day just the way they wanted it, and there was this human connection that was really amazing.”

Sympathetic views were thus not limited to typical labor advocates — those who see the absurdity in poodle tenders complaining about less-than-living wages being too high and members of the Rolodex Class lecturing undocumented immigrants about the merit of start-ups. Solidarity, in this campaign, came from unlikely people.

Organizers said this affected Samson, himself a local, and has continued to influence negotiations with the new owners.

“They want to open it, but they are just petrified of the community pressure on them from this whole neighborhood and the name of Hot and Crusty being totally tarnished by the lockout of the workers,” said Ben Dictor, a co-founder of the Laundry Workers Center who works for a law firm representing the HWCA.

Dictor added that the new owners immediately recognized the union after it dropped complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

But the campaign itself isn’t abating. The newly formed union is attempting to organize employees at other Hot and Crusty franchises and other restaurants. By the time the second anniversary of Occupy rolls around, the HWCA might have even more tangible victories to commemorate.

It’s probable that they will, too. Unskilled workers don’t need an activist encampment to teach them why they should organize.

“These workers have been radicalized on their own,” Mohit said, “just from their experiences of working within a capitalist system as a low wage immigrant worker.”

The Occupy movement, however, can help workers organize without mainstream union help. In Manhattan and beyond.