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New Yorkers March Against Wage Slavery

by Diane Krauthamer / January 22, 2009

On a chilly Monday morning in midtown Manhattan, demonstrators displayed powerful messages of solidarity with food and retail workers, demanding fair wages and treatment while sending a prominent message to bosses: “You can’t keep the workers down, New York is a union town!”

On January 19, 2009, approximately 50 people braved the winter weather for the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) annual “March Against Wage Slavery” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Starting at 11 AM outside the Starbucks Regional Office on 5th Avenue in the shadows of the Empire State Building, a radical marching band joined by union members and supporters rallied alongside Starbucks baristas to demand that workers be paid a holiday premium of time and a half for working on MLK Day—the only national holiday in which workers do not receive premium pay.

Starbucks barista and union organizer Liberte Locke spoke of Starbucks’ hypocritical corporate propaganda of claiming to be “committed to diversity” and “social responsibility” while at the same time refusing to honor Dr. King’s legacy in his fight for racial equality and civil rights.

“It’s very important today to remember that we keep our eyes on the prize. Starbucks will recognize us, they will recognize the work of baristas struggling to survive, baristas on food stamps, on Medicaid because they can’t get the company health insurance. Baristas like myself who can’t afford simple things like paying my rent while they buy a $45 million private jet,” Locke said.

Former barista Joe Agins, Jr., who was fired for organizing with the Starbucks Workers Union of the IWW in 2005, said the holiday premium is an important struggle because in light of the inauguration of the first black president, this “is a time in which the company can show workers that Starbucks believes race is important.”

A holiday premium would “benefit the workers’ livelihoods and show (them) respect,” Agins said. Despite the benefits, Starbucks issued a denial of the union's demand prior to MLK Day 2008.

With the Rude Mechanical Orchestra playing an Italian resistance song “Bella Ciao,” along with a Staten Island resistance song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” demonstrators marched east to the Wild Edibles Seafood Market location on 3rd Avenue, demanding justice for 12 workers who were fired after attempting to unionize.

“Instead of respecting the workers' basic rights to receive overtime pay and form a labor union, (Wild Edibles) owner Richard Martin has responded with an aggressive and illegal retaliation campaign,” explained Stephanie Basile, an IWW organizer. Martin heard about the day’s protest activities and closed down the retail location for half of the day with a sign on the door reading “We are closing for a few hours to sort out some building-related issues.” Former Wild Edibles worker Pedro Hernández glanced at the sign and laughed at Martin’s inability to face the confrontation. Basile said closing the store down was “very telling” of Martin’s anti-worker sentiment.

“The fact that he actually chose to close a few hours of business instead of face the union is just another example of how he constantly evades his responsibilities to the workers,” she said. Former and current Wild Edibles employees filed a federal class action lawsuit against the company on September 17, 2007. According to the complaint, Wild Edibles violated New York Labor Law and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by not compensating workers 1 ½ times the base wage for working more than 40 hours per week, and by discriminating and retaliating for protected activity.

Additionally, the IWW has filed a series of unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over retaliation against employees and interference with organizing activities. After independent investigations of these charges, the NLRB has thus far issued two complaints against Wild Edibles over the unlawful discharge of seven employees and other violations of federal law.

“The workers' demands include much more, including stopping union busting, rehiring all the fired workers, and paying all the back wages,” she said.

All in all, Basile called Monday’s action a “success“ because it energized workers and union supporters who work hard every day on building these campaigns for labor rights in New York City. Joe Agins, Jr. said the protest and his union struggles have made him realize that “no matter what you believe in, you can make a difference by standing up for what is right.”

“The union fights for what the workers believe in and we feel that demanding this MLK premium pay is just the beginning,” Agins said.

“We make (CEO) Howard Schultz his money. He owes us respect, he owes us pay raises, he owes us set guaranteed schedules and hours, and health insurance across the board for everyone” Liberte Locke said.

“We have to hold them accountable for what they do to us everyday and stand united, because we are the coffee slingers of Starbucks. We have to let them know each and everyday that we honor Dr. King even if Howard Schultz and Starbucks does not,” she added.

Photos can be viewed at Next Left Notes Photo Album