229 Knickerbocker Ave, Brooklyn NY.
Take the L train to Morgan Ave, walk South on Morgan Ave. Make a left on Flushing. Make a right onto Knickerbocker Ave, and walk 4 short blocks to the corner of Starr Street.
This local supermarket was forced to pay workers back wages in August for widespread wage violations. The owners, along with the owners of Pioneer Supermarket at 1115 Pennsylvania Avenue, paid “restitution totaling $1,125,000”1. The owners “were also arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal wage theft and falsification of records”2. Violations included lack of overtime pay, paying below minimum wage, and, most egregiously, complete lack of pay for baggers who relied solely on tips.
Bushwick’s racialized spaces, immigrant disenfranchisement, connection to transnational economies and labor flows, and local activism collide in the Associated Supermarket incident. The victory resulted from years of grassroots planning and activism, led by the supermarket workers themselves with support from an extraordinary organization, Make the Road New York. They instituted a long-term boycott of the supermarket, and raised community awareness of the exploitation through Make the Road New York’s weekly meetings, bilingual flyering of the neighborhood and long-term protesting at the site. This community led pressure influenced the New York State’s Attorney General’s Office, who instituted, and ultimately won or settled criminal and civil charges against the owners3.
Make the Road New York is a merger non-profit of Make the Road By Walking, a grassroots Bushwick-based organization that focused solely on immigrant welfare recipients, and the Latin-American Immigration Center, whose mission was to “promote and protect human and civil rights of Latino immigrants and encourage their civic participation in New York City”4. Make the Road New York empowers local residents through leadership roles in the organization. Their advocacy includes expanding civil rights, improving health care, youth development, education, as well as workplace justice. It gives local residents, many of whom are either documented or undocumented immigrants, a voice in the larger policy debate and a say in the direction of their own lives.
In fighting against labor violations, local residents reworked hegemonic discourses around citizenship status and racialized labor. Workers stood up for their rights, refusing to remain silent because of their race or legal status. In demanding rights, residents inserted themselves into cultural membership, or citizenship, in the United States. Formal citizenship is not always “a necessary or a sufficient condition for substantive citizenship” in a globalizing world where formal participation in a nation-state is divorced from “civic, political, socioeconomic and cultural rights”5. In claiming rights and inserting themselves as political actors, residents became citizens “in the broadest sense”6. They became Americans, culturally if not formally, through the very act of advocating for their rights.
While the workers were able to transcend some “identities” such as citizenship status and language, their victory was simultaneously aided by racism imbedded in the place of the victory and inscribed on the bodies of the victors. Almost 40% of Bushwick residents are foreign born, nearly 80% of residents are Latino and almost 35% live below the poverty line7. The workers were able to draw commonalities because of historical ghettoization and racialization of the area. Bushwick has a long history of blockbusting, followed by cycles of disinvestment and perceived blight, which contributed to the area’s racial and socio-economic homogeneity8. A relatively homogenous socio-economic base may have mitigated potential fractures in advocacy goals.
- Elizabeth Baik and Zoe Ginsburg
- Elizabeth Baik and Zoe Ginsburg
1 Chan, Sewell. “2 Bushwick Supermarkets Settle Labor Charges.” New York Times. 1
July 2009. Available from [http://www.maketheroad.org/article.php?ID=980].
2 “Winning the Fight Against Wage Theft.” Available from [ http://www.maketheroad.org/article.php?ID=985]
3 Make the Road New York. “What We Do. ” Available from [http://maketheroad.org/whatwedo_workplace.php]
4 Make the Road New York. “Who We Are—Our History. Available from [http://www.maketheroad.org/whoweare_ourhistory.php].
5 Holston, James and Arjun Appadurai. James Holston ed. Cities and Citizenship. “Introduction: Cities and Citizenship.” (pp 4). Durham and London:Duke University Press, 1999.
6 Flores, William V. (2003). “New Citizens, New Rights: Undocumented Immigrants and Latino Cultural Citizenship.” Latin American Perspectives, 30 (2), 87-100.
7 Wikipedia. “Bushwick, Brooklyn.” Dec. 8 2009. Available from [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushwick,_Brooklyn]; Furman Center. “State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods 2008.” Available from [http://furmancenter.org/research/sonychan].8 Massey, Douglas and Nancy Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.; Malanga, Steven. “The Death and Life of Bushwick: A Brooklyn Neighborhood finally recovers from decades of Misguided Urban Policies. City Journal Spring 2008 Vol. 18.2. Available from [http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_2_bushwick.html].