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Many Cardozo students have noticed the protestors outside New York’s East Natural grocery store on the corner of 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. The protestors stand no more than five feet from the entrance giving out leaflets and yelling “Boycott the store!” Their cries are loud, vehement and antagonistic. The passers-by cannot help but turn around and see what the noise is all about. But the story behind what has been labeled by the Attorney General’s office as the “Greengrocers’ protests” is far more complicated than just some pesky neighborhood squabble. The protestors are, for the most part, members of the Community Labor Coalition and the UNITE (Union of the Needletrade, Industrial, and Textile Employees). This labor union is a national organization sprinkled with the local chapters around the city. Although the labor union is involved, the protestors claim that the boycotts against the grocery stores are a community effort. Their slogan for the protest is that they’ll “eradicate sweatshops on the lower east side.” The protestors are convinced that East Natural grocery is a sweatshop. They allege that the owner of the store does not pay minimum wage, overtime and benefits to his mostly Mexican workers. “When we started boycotting back in July, eighty percent of the workers in that store did not receive minimum wage,” said Alejandro Fuentes, a union worker and a protestor. Now, three months later, Fuentes does not know whether the workers receive minimum wage or not, but he knows that the workers receive no overtime pay or any type of benefits. “Maybe they do pay [minimum wage] now, but for how long?” Fuentes said. When asked whether there was a solution, he said that a contract with the union is a good solution. Menni Ness, professor at a city college and the founder/activist of Community Labor Coalition for lower Manhattan, claims that the workers of East Natural were not receiving minimum wage since the store opened three or four years ago. According to Ness, the store has been breaking state and federal labor laws for a continuous period of time for which the workers are entitled to compensation in back pay. The Attorney General’s office seems to be conducting an investigation into these allegations. Juanita Scarlett, the spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, confirmed that there is an investigation of certain greengrocer’s stores, but the investigation is ongoing. Scarlett declined to disclose the names of the stores under the investigation or whether East Natural is one of them. “There are over 2,000 greengrocer’s stores in the city,” she said, “and we conclusively know that only two of the stores violated federal and state labor laws.” Also, Scarlett said that the Attorney General’s office is not involved in the street boycotts and that the protests are “a separate action” from the investigation. The two people who are strongly affected by the boycotts are Jacob Han and Josephine Kim — the co-owners of East Natural. They also own a grocery store located on 16th Street and Fifth Avenue which is also targeted by the protestors. Han, who asked to see a Cardozo school I.D. before he consented to speak about the protests, said that the boycotters outside his store never worked at his groceries. “It is union business and has nothing to do with my workers or the store. The union hired school children and homeless to stand there. They get paid. They stand outside my store for 12 hours a day. And they certainly do not care about Mexican workers.” Furthermore, Han stated that the union involved in this matter is a textile union and has nothing to do with Han’s grocery business. The union admits that some of the protestors outside East Natural may get paid and UNITE is technically a textile union. However, it claims to have a valid reason to boycott Han’s store. “When federal labor laws are violated and the workers do not receive minimum wage, the union gets involved,” said Jeff Eichler, union organizer, “These [grocery] workers need our representation because no one else will help them.” In general, supermarkets and groceries are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). However, UFCW declined to get involved in this case. In response to the union pressure, Han states that none of his workers want to join the union. They cannot force an employer to join unless the majority of employer’s workers agree to it. Han said that the labor union called for his workers to vote on whether or not to join in July, but then it cancelled the elections at the last minute. The union admitted to canceling the elections at East Natural, but according to Eichler, elections might have been “packed”. “Suddenly a lot of part-time workers appeared on Han’s list of employees. We suspected bribery and intimidation.” Since all the employees in the store must vote, the union decided to cancel the elections rather than risk losing them. Intimidation seems to be an allegation from all sides. Han claims that the union is intimidating all employers and their workers who refuse to join. The union, on the other hand, claims that it is Han who is intimidating his workers and not the union. Furthermore, the union claims that they are themselves the victims of intimidation from Han’s hired law firm, Cole & Cole, who seems to be handling East Natural’s interest in this matter. Intimidation appears to be a big factor on the streets as well. Some of Han’s customers feel emotionally manipulated by the protestors outside. The protestors address the customers as “miss” or “sir,” begging them not to patronize the store. Such personal appeals leave many customers with mixed feelings. Even those sympathetic to the protestors’ cause hate to be put on the spot and made to feel guilty for grabbing a bagel in the morning. The community organizer, Ness, agreed that some of the protestors’ tactics were excessive and he quickly apologized for any discomfort that Han’s customers may feel. However, he does not blame the protestors for feeling emotionally charged because the subject of minimum wage touches their families and their community. The community around the East Natural store includes four major schools: New York University, the New School, Parsons, and Cardozo. Some New School and NYU students chose to support the union and boycott the store. Cardozo students, however, seem to address the situation with the due caution befitting potential lawyers. They appear not to support either side. Most are content to be mere observers in this explosive controversial struggle which unravels itself few feet from Cardozo’s front doors.

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