Activist company

In New York, liberal rabbis demonstrate for workers’ rights and a Hasidic company listens

New York Jewish Week – Six local rabbis had planned to deliver a letter to a Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based construction and demolition company on the morning of Wednesday, June 15. The letter, which was based on Jewish values ​​and teachings, was intended to urge the Jewish owners to reconsider their company’s working conditions and policies.

Instead of a simple drop off, however, the rabbis ended up spending about 90 minutes with a representative from Hasidic firm Best Super Cleaning. The team walked away with tangible concessions for the company’s mostly Latino and immigrant workers.

“It was an unexpected encounter,” Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, founder of Malkhut, a progressive Jewish community in Queens, told New York Jewish Week. “We left with agreements moving forward, confidence building measures and commitments to put some things in place to allow for better, more direct communication between workers and management.”

The impromptu negotiation session between the rabbis and business owners was part of a larger campaign that paired left-wing Jewish militant organizations T’ruah, the Rabbinical Appeal for Human Rights and Jews for racial and economic justice with the Laundry Workers Center, a New York-based, member-driven organization that advocates for better working conditions for laundry, warehouse, restaurant and construction workers in New York and in New Jersey.

Sophie Ellman-Golan, director of strategic communications for JFREJ, explained that campaigns with management tend to be very long – it’s rare to sit down for a meeting right away.

“We have the impression [the meeting] has been so successful because of our comrades at T’ruah and JFREJ,” said labor organizer Mahoma Lopez, founder and co-director of the Laundry Workers Center, who accompanied the rabbis on Wednesday. “They’ve written the letter and are putting a lot of pressure on the employer and a lot of people are watching.”

The problem for the employees of Best Super Cleaning was their poor working conditions – in particular the lack of breaks and paid holidays. Adelso Escalante, a 20-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, has worked there for three years. In a conversation with New York Jewish Week, he described how heavy lifting up stairs, with little or no rest or breaks, and very few days off, led to increased strain and pain. in his knees. His condition worsened so much that he was hospitalized for several days earlier this month.

As delegates from each group met with management inside in an impromptu meeting, other members of each group held signs and handed out flyers to passers-by in the neighborhood. (JFREJ/via JTA)

Escalante described how many of his colleagues also had stomach problems due to the lateness of their lunch breaks – often starting work before dawn, not resting until 3 or 4 p.m., or sometimes not at all. Furthermore, he said they were not provided with proper personal protective equipment to protect them from the dust and other chemicals they worked with day in and day out, which led to several illnesses within the facility. ‘crew.

Escalante had repeatedly asked his bosses for sick leave — requests he said went unanswered. “I was sick but it was nothing too serious. I went back to work. I worked throughout the pandemic, until 2020. I am a responsible person and I do my job,” said Escalante in Spanish “I felt bad, but I went back to work anyway. They didn’t say anything. Not a thank you or anything.”

Then, last week, a colleague was fired for not showing up to work because he was sick, he said.

“We decided we weren’t going to put up with this anymore,” Escalante said. “My colleagues were injured and many of them had to stop working because of it.”

The Laundry Workers Center launched the “Cabricanecos Campaign” in early May. Thirty-eight wreckers from Best Super Cleaning marched with dozens of local LWC, JFREJ and T’ruah supporters to their bosses’ Williamsburg office to demand better terms.

Since the campaign’s launch — which included picketing campaigns in Williamsburg and handing out flyers to community members, sometimes on Shabbat — workers say they are being given lunch breaks every day at more appropriate times.

“Since working with the Laundry Workers Center, I’ve learned that so many things that happen at my job shouldn’t be like this,” Escalante said.

But there is still a lot to do. Lopez said he also helped bring lawsuits against Best Super Clean for their labor practices; under New York State law, all workers are entitled to at least five sick days per year. Lopez also suspects the company retaliated against workers for trying to organize — in addition to Escalante, Lopez said, five other workers have been fired without cause in recent months.

Another tactic Lopez had, however, was to team up with T’ruah and JFREJ. LWC and JFREJ previously teamed up in 2015 to win support for workers’ organizing efforts at downtown B&H Photo, the Hasidic-owned electronics retailer. Perhaps, he thought, if his fellow Jews stood up for the workers, the company owners would hear their pleas in a new light.

Representatives from JFREJ, T’ruah and the Laundry Workers Center showed up Wednesday morning at the offices of Best Super Cleaning to demand better working conditions for employees. (JFREJ/via JTA)

The letter, addressed to Best Super Clean owners Joseph Jacobowitz, Benjamin Mehrel and Jacob David Segelbaum, was released when the campaign was announced in early May. Signed by 35 local rabbis, it quoted Deuteronomy: “You shall not mistreat a needy and destitute workman, whether he be a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your country.”

According to Goldenberg and Lopez, the plan Wednesday morning was to drop the letter and walk away. But at the meeting, the Best Super Cleaning rep agreed to rehire the worker who was fired last week and expressed a willingness to speak to attorneys for the other workers who were fired.

Best Super Cleaning declined to comment on the encounter with New York Jewish Week.

Illustrative: Protesters at a Jewish rally at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in New York demonstrate against the government’s policy of separating borders, June 21, 2018. (Ben Sales/JTA)

Goldenberg and Lopez said management also agreed to meet with a representative from each construction crew once a month to open dialogue and communication between workers and management. They also expressed interest in hiring bilingual supervisors for construction crews as well as providing better training for crew leaders.

In response, LWC agreed not to picket and distribute flyers in Williamsburg on Shabbat.

“The proof will be in the follow-up, but I’m optimistic,” Goldenberg said. She said LWC plans to meet with Best Super Clean again in the coming weeks to check on progress.

“We depend on each other – our communities are also interconnected, and it’s really meaningful to be part of a campaign that is so local,” Goldenberg added. “As one of my management colleagues said, ‘It would be a real kiddush hashem to let the Jewish community know that this Jewish-owned company is doing the right thing for its workers.

Lopez – who noted Friday morning that workers’ management had promised to rehire had yet to be contacted by his former bosses – remains optimistic but skeptical. “Sometimes employers say things when they’re under pressure, but don’t follow through,” he said. “I think the company is very scared, that’s why they were open [to meeting]. I don’t know if they are just trying to fix their image.

As for Escalante, he said he was touched to see how many New Yorkers were ready to defend him. “We are immigrants, we are Latinos, we are Hispanics. We need respect. We are human beings too,” he said. “I am very happy to know that I have the support of so many people who can really help.”