No one needs to tell Sofia Campos what hard work is all about. Since coming to New York City from Mexico in 1993, she has been employed at a succession of the low wage jobs that newly arrived immigrants often fill. But nothing prepared Sofia for her experience working at a small chain store in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
"I worked from 9 a.m. until 7:30 at night, six days a week," Sofia said.
"I earned $240 per week, but I would have been earning $358 if I had been paid the minimum wage," she added, noting that several of her co-workers were also underpaid.
Sofia's story is not unfamiliar to the workers at the 175 stores that line this busy section of Knickerbocker Avenue. Like her, many come to Bushwick from the Caribbean or Latin America and find work at retailers who deny them wages they are legally entitled to.
Luckily, Sofia reached out to Make the Road by Walking, a Bushwick-based community organization. Together, they launched a consumer boycott that eventually forced the employer to pay Sofia and her coworkers the $65,000 they were entitled to.
Working with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the activists forced another merchant to pay more than $27,000 to four employees who had each been paid only $320 after putting in 72 hour work weeks.
Has it always been this way in Bushwick? Hardly. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, most of the stores on Knickerbocker Avenue were "mom and pop" operations whose owners often lived in the community they served. Most importantly, employees at more than half of the stores on Knickerbocker Avenue were protected by union contracts. They not only earned more than the minimum wage, they also received health insurance and other needed benefits. To retain good workers, many non-union businesses felt obliged to follow suit.
However, the mom and pop retailers have since been replaced by small, non-union chain stores. Instead of treating employees as a valuable asset, these businesses often regard them as expenses to be cut.
What is happening on Knickerbocker Avenue is not unique to Bushwick, either. A 2003 study for the Economic Policy Institute by Dr. Moshe Adler of Columbia University found that the wages and benefits of New York's retail workers are so meager that taxpayers spend $1.1 billion annually to provide the health insurance, rent subsidies and other assistance they and their families need to survive. In other words, retailers are nickel and diming workers and New York taxpayers are getting stuck with the tab.
We believe our community can do better. That is why the Workplace Justice Project at Make the Road by Walking and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union have joined forces to bring good wages to Bushwick. For starters, we are working with Attorney General Spitzer to turn up the heat on Knickerbocker Avenue retailers who break the law and rip off their workers. But we cannot stop there – and we will not. Earning the minimum wage won't help New York's retail workers into the middle class: to do that it takes a living wage, affordable health care, training opportunities and more. The only way workers on Knickerbocker Avenue will ever make those gains are with strong union representation.
Neighborhood residents and unions teaming up may seem like a new idea, but it is based on an enduring truth: good jobs are fundamental to strong communities. That's why our campaign has won the backing of leaders ranging from local churches to Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez to the Latin American Integration Center and New York City Jobs with Justice.
The families of Bushwick understand that our whole community benefits when workers on Knickerbocker Avenue earn good wages. The only question is how long it will take before their employers understand that, too.
Nieves Padilla is Workplace Justice Project organizer for Make the Road by Walking. Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW.