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Less Brand, More Tactic: Labor Win’s Lessons for Occupy

Olivia Rosane
YES! Magazine / News Analysis
Published: Friday 21 September 2012
“Prompted by below-minimum wages, verbal and sexual harassment, and unsafe working conditions, the workers at a midtown branch of the bakery chain Hot and Crusty voted to unionize in mid-May.”
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Just weeks before the Occupy movement celebrated its first birthday on Wall Street, low-wage immigrant workers at a Manhattan bagel shop proved that Occupy tactics can make a difference on Main Street, too. 

Prompted by below-minimum wages, verbal and sexual harassment, and unsafe working conditions, the workers at a midtown branch of the bakery chain Hot and Crusty voted to unionize in mid-May. When the chain’s owner shut down the store in retaliation on August 31, the workers didn’t leave their workplace quietly. Instead, they and their supporters occupied it.

The occupation lasted for about two and a half hours before the police arrived and arrested six members of Occupy Wall Street, who refused to leave in a show of solidarity. But the workers and their allies had made their point.

“That kind of action made the company think about it,” said Mahoma López Garfias, who has worked at Hot and Crusty for seven years and was one of the key organizers. “They had to have an agreement with the workers.”

A week and a day later, the workers announced a tentative agreement with a new owner: he would reopen the store, rehire the workers, negotiate with the union, and give the union control over hiring new workers.

That’s not to say they all lived happily ever after . The building’s landlord is currently hedging on whether or not he will lease the space to the prospective new owner or to another business. But the agreement still stands as a remarkable victory amidst a decade of labor defeats.

Raising Support in the Neighborhood

Workers and supporters affirmed that direct action and creative tactics helped them win. In addition to the occupation, workers maintained a daily picket line and set up a “Worker Justice Café” on the sidewalk beside the shuttered restaurant.

The café, in particular, helped generate support in the surrounding community, according to Diego Ibañez, a member of the Occupy Wall Street Immigrant Worker Justice group, which has been involved in the campaign since last November.  Once the “symbolism of the counter” was removed, he said, customers began relating to the workers as friends, rather than as food servers.

Community awareness helped put pressure on the store’s then-owner, Mark Samson, who lived in the neighborhood.

It wasn’t Samson who finally signed the deal, however. A businessman named Anthony Illuzzi stepped up to take over ownership of the store.

Illuzzi said he’d been in the food business for 30 years and had found out about the labor strife through someone invested both in Hot and Crusty and one of Illuzzi’s other ventures.

Where Samson saw a nuisance, Illuzzi saw opportunity. “[Hot and Crusty] interests me because it’s a pillar of the community,” he said.

Workers Organizing Themselves

The Hot and Crusty struggle has many lessons to teach the labor movement, the first being that it’s not enough to rely on the legal bureaucracy.

López Garfias explained that he and his coworkers initially sought help from the Labor Department, but never got a response. Then one of their coworkers, who had a second job at a laundromat, told them about the Laundry Workers Center (LCW), a group formed to address the needs of the city’s largely underpaid and unorganized laundry workers. 

The LWC, which is itself little over a year old, has clear ideas about who and how to organize. “Who,” said Nastaran Mohit, the LCW's Mass Media Coordinator and Community Organizer, is “low-wage immigrant workers.” “How” is by training workers “to become organizers themselves,” as opposed to the top-down organizing model favored by more established unions.

The Hot and Crusty struggle and the LWC grew together. A group from Hot and Crusty was the first to attend the LWC’s Leadership Institute. As that first group shared their new skills and knowledge with their coworkers, more workers ­shed their fear and stepped forward to attend and organize.

Through the LWC, Hot and Crusty workers found out about Occupy Wall Street’s Immigrant Justice Group and began attending meetings, building lasting relationships.  

“They met people in Occupy who became connected to their story and their struggle and wanted to come out and support them,” Mohit said.

The workers went public with their campaign on January 21, when they marched to the restaurant with 50 supporters and presented their manager with a list of demands. Before the unionization vote, they kept up the pressure by leafleting, even as they helped plan Occupy Wall Street’s May Day demonstrations

In addition to building connections in the present, the Hot and Crusty workers have fought to build a foundation for future solidarity. The workers, many of whom are undocumented, turned down a deal that would have required new hires to show U.S. work permits.

At a time when many unions are accepting contracts that offer significantly reduced benefits to new members, the workers’ decision is an important example.

 “One of the most radical things,” Ibañez said, “is that they’re not discriminating against the future labor force.”

Less Brand, More Tactic

But if the Hot and Crusty struggle has lessons to teach the traditional labor movement, it has just as much to teach Occupy as a whole.

It suggests that the future of the movement lies less in symbolic protests on Wall Street and more in challenging policies in marginalized communities through radical networks and actions.

“If Occupy’s going to survive it needs to start plugging into these very real struggles in the city,” Mohit said, adding that the Hot and Crusty struggle was an “example of a successful community campaign where Occupy plugged in, in all the best ways.”

Ibañez argued that this struggle, like the rent strike in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and anti-foreclosure actions in Chicago, “redefined what occupation meant. Rather than a brand, it became a verb.”

It seems like an opportune time for such a transformation because the power of Occupy as a brand is fading. During its first months, the movement captured national attention through dramatic actions in high-profile locations like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Oakland ports. Know Your Meme listed it as one of their “Best Memes of 2011.” But now that police have smashed the encampments, pundits feel confident calling Occupy “a Frenzy that Fizzled.”

Meanwhile, people like the workers at Hot and Crusty are literally occupying to fight injustice. Their struggles and succeses show the movement of the 99 % a way forward.

Olivia Rosane wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions.. She is a writer and activist living in New York City. In addition to covering Occupy Wall Street for YES! last fall, she has written for Dissent’s blog and The State. Follow her on Twitter @orosane.

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