This article is part of Belabored Stories, a series by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen featuring short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For many immigrant workers, the end of the Trump administration, and the start of the post-pandemic economic recovery, have brought a little optimism after a year of desperation and fear.
On May Day, however, immigrant workers marched to remind the public that they are still struggling. In New York City, workers who used to work for the Queens-based Tom Cat Bakery rallied outside the Union Square branch of Trader Joe’s—a longtime customer of Tom Cat’s—along with members of the Democratic Socialists of America (including the author) and the labor solidarity group El Hormiguero, aiming to discourage customers from buying Tom Cat bread.
The workers, who are members of the worker center Brandworkers, have been involved in campaigns against Tom Cat since early 2017, when over twenty bakery workers were told that the workplace was under audit by the Department of Homeland Security (Tom Cat says it does not know why it was targeted by DHS), and they would be fired unless they could produce documentation of their right to work legally in the United States. The original deadline to produce the documentation was extended by about a month as workers and labor allies staged protests to pressure Tom Cat to stand by its workers. Mobilizing amid a wave of outrage over Trump’s threats of stepped-up immigration raids, the group went on to pressure the company’s wholesale customers, including the Jean-Georges Restaurants, to drop the supplier.
For its part, the company said in a statement emailed to Dissent that it was “genuinely distressed” that it had to terminate the workers or otherwise “face legal consequences including heavy fines and possible criminal charges.”
Since being fired, several of the workers have continued to demand that Tom Cat meet their demands for a fair severance. Tom Cat, which belongs to the multinational bread brand Yamazaki Baking, did eventually produce an agreement through negotiations with the union representing the bakery workers, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union Local 53. Tom Cat said it offered “one week for each year of service, full pay for unused vacation and all unused personal and sick days, 90 days of continued health care benefits or their cash equivalent,” and, for workers who could prove their legal status within the next six months, an invitation to return to their old jobs. According to the company, of the twenty-one fired workers who were ultimately fired due to the audit, thirteen took the offer.
But others believe they deserve far more for their many years of service to the bakery. Tino, who was fired after working at Tom Cat for over a decade, said through a translator at the rally, “When we are thinking of a fair and dignified severance, it has to be comparable to the labor that we put into building this company. This is why we immediately, categorically, rejected the offer that the company made us.”
Another former Tom Cat employee, Sabino, said, “We want compensation that equals the time that we spent building the company.” For nearly two decades, during which he worked 3 a.m. till noon producing bread for some of the city’s top restaurants, he estimated that daily production grew dramatically, from baking over 7,500 pounds of bread in a typical day in the beginning to producing up to about triple that amount just during the afternoon shift in 2017.
In addition to just compensation, Brandworkers has called on Tom Cat to adopt reforms to better protect workers in the case of a future audit, including demanding that immigration authorities produce a judicial warrant in order to investigate or audit the factory, based on employer guidelines developed by the National Employment Law Project.
Brandworkers said that in its last communication with the company last October, Tom Cat claimed the pandemic had made it unfeasible to negotiate a better financial package.
But Sabino is skeptical: “Now we can see, with much of the economy reopening, with more restaurants opening, that actually production is increasing at the company.”
Though they have moved on to other jobs, the pandemic has hit the former Tom Cat employees hard. Tino lost a month of work, uncompensated, when he got severely ill last year. Sabino saw his hours cut at his current bakery job. “Like many of my compañeros,” he said, “this is the only type of job I’ve had since I came to this country. It’s very difficult to get another type of work, because we don’t have experience.”
The plight of undocumented workers during the pandemic has been deepened by their exclusion from unemployment benefits and other financial relief, which left many without a safety net when they lost work or fell ill. New York State has begun to remedy this disparity with the launch of the Excluded Workers Fund, a $2.1 billion fund aimed at supporting many of the low-wage and immigrant workers who do not qualify for federal relief. (I coordinated a teach-in on the legislation with Make the Road New York and NYC-DSA’s Immigrant Justice Working Group.)
Although Tino supports the legislation, he noted, “It’s way too late. Everyone should have the right to the same security, because we have been working so many decades here and been paying taxes the entire time.”
Workers like Tino and Sabino can’t rely on one-off government payments. The only reliable support they’ve found in times of crisis is each other. For other workers who find themselves targeted by immigration authorities, Sabino said, “I would advise them to organize with their coworkers and to fight for their rights.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.