May 7, 2012
Large settlement and code of conduct represent biggest victory yet in Focus on the Food Chain campaign to improve New York City's food processing and distribution sector
New York, NY- After enduring a withering worker-led campaign, Flaum Appetizing, a prominent producer and distributor of hummus and other kosher food products, has accepted a global settlement which will return $577,000 in unpaid wages and other compensation to workers and subject the Brooklyn-based factory to a binding code of conduct protecting workplace rights. The victory comes after the workers' group, Focus on the Food Chain, in partnership with Orthodox social justice organization, Uri L'Tzedek, persuaded over 120 grocery store locations in New York City to stop selling Flaum products, including its Sonny & Joe's hummus, until workers' rights were respected. The win is the biggest yet for Focus on the Food Chain, a joint effort of Brandworkers and the NYC Industrial Workers of the World, dedicated to creating good jobs and a sustainable food system in New York City's food processing and distribution sector.
"More than anything, I want fellow workers in the food factories and warehouses to know that there is real power in coming together and struggling together," said Maria Corona, a Focus on the Food Chain member and Flaum worker who had been illegally fired. "We won the respect we deserve and you can too."
Flaum Appetizing entered 2012 hobbled by the labor dispute. In addition to getting Flaum products off grocery store shelves, workers organized rabbinical delegations and an international day of action to persuade Tnuva, the world's largest kosher cheese brand, to discontinue its relationship with Flaum. Tnuva, owned by private equity giant Apax Partners, was distributed to New York supermarkets by Flaum and constituted a significant portion of Flaum's revenues.
In January, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. ruled against Flaum's attempt to make discriminatory immigration status allegations against the workers who are from Latin America. The decision set an important precedent for immigrant workers nationwide by erecting procedural safeguards in cases involving the landmark anti-immigrant Supreme Court case, Hoffman Plastic.
"New York City's food processing and distribution sector could help lift the economy with good jobs and provide healthy, local food with a smaller ecological footprint," said Daniel Gross, a workers' rights' attorney and the executive director of Brandworkers. "Instead, the business model in this critical part of the food supply chain increasingly relies on cutting corners and exploiting immigrant workers of color. With their exemplary victory, the Flaum workers have shown that abusive workplaces in this sector can be transformed through organizing, grassroots advocacy, and litigation."
Flaum maintained deplorable working conditions for over a decade. Workers were subjected to massive wage theft including a failure to pay overtime and at times the minimum wage, for grueling work weeks as long as eighty hours. Workers faced discrimination and abuse including anti-immigrant insults from senior management. When workers demanded payment in accordance with the law, seventeen were illegally fired. Though Flaum lost an NLRB trial over the firings, it had resisted compliance with cynical and unfounded allegations about immigration status. This global settlement resolves both the NLRB retaliation litigation and a large federal lawsuit over unpaid minimum wage and overtime.
"We are grateful to the grocery stores and Tnuva for standing up for the rule of law and supplier responsibility," said Rabbi Ari Hart, co-founder of Uri L'Tzedek. "The Torah calls on us to fight for justice. Many rabbis and community members stood with the workers of Flaum and will continue to energetically support an ethical food system. We are pleased that Flaum has done the right thing and are heartened that it has emerged as a better company."
New York grocery stores and restaurants are increasingly dependent on an industrial corridor of food processing factories and distribution warehouses that hold down wages and safety standards through pervasive legal violations. Wage theft, discrimination, and health & safety hazards are common in the sector which employs 35,000 workers, most of whom are recent immigrants of color.
Focus on the Food Chain challenges these unlawful conditions with grassroots organizing, worker-led campaigns, and legal actions. The campaign is working towards a food processing and distribution sector that provides good jobs and contributes to a sustainable local food system.
Brandworkers is a New York-based non-profit organization protecting and advancing the rights of retail and food employees. By training workers in social change tools and facilitating member-led workplace justice campaigns, Brandworkers promotes employer compliance with the law and challenges corporate misconduct in the community.
Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World is a grassroots labor union dedicated to member-led organizing and workplace democracy.