Many kosher-observant Jews in the New York area are familiar with the light comestibles prepared by the century-old Flaum Appetizing Corporation, either for their kitchen tables or the Saturday afternoon shalah shudus (third meal) gatherings at their local synagogues.
What they may be gradually learning about, as they sit down to Flaum’s egg salad, matjes herring or baba ganoush, is the long-simmering labor dispute pitting the East Williamsburg company’s owners against former workers, a dispute that has in recent months bubbled hotly to the surface.
Aggrieved ex-Flaum employees and their labor activist allies are working hard to provide consumers with their side of the story, taking their special kind of truth-in-labeling campaign to offices and the streets as well as to two federal courts.
Along the way the protesters have picked up visible support inside the local Orthodox community.
The dispute dates back to 2007 with complaints by employees of unpaid back pay totaling $260,000, followed by the subsequent firing of 17 Flaum workers. Though a National Labor Relations Board judge ordered Flaum managers to rehire and compensate the workers, the company has not complied, informing the judge that the illegal immigration status of the workers relieves the company of any obligation to meet their demands.
In additional actions Flaum has countersued, demanding protesters halt their street vigils.
Other contested issues, such as the rights of Flaum employees to organize a union, are working their way through the Second Circuit federal court.
“Too much hours,” for as much as 72 hours a week for no overtime pay, summed up Maria Corona, a fired salad maker, adding lack of breaks or vacations to the grievances. “They don’t share,” she complained. She broke down the workers’ goal to a single word: “Respect.”
“We treat our workers with dignity and fairness, like family,” countered a Flaum spokesman when contacted by The Jewish Week. “They’re passionate employees, and they’re from every ethnic background.” He cited a full three-month paid leave granted by the company to one parent of a cancer-stricken child.
“We follow the law to the dot,” the spokesman said. He added that the campaign was “backfiring,” with many Flaum customers pledging support and stepping up their purchases.
According to business monitors, Flaum is in the top three among kosher appetizer companies and has grown 15 percent in the past two years. (Flaum’s, the popular retail food store in Williamsburg, is not currently affiliated with Flaum the appetizer producer at the center of the dispute and is not a target of the pro-labor campaign.)
Pushing their cause, the fired workers have picketed the Williamsburg home of Flaum owner Moshe Grunhut. They have also begun a regular Sunday “informational picket” in front of Borough Park’s kosher megastore, KRM Kollel Supermarket. At their sides are activists from Focus on the Food Chain, a joint nationwide project of the old radical union Industrial Workers of the World, and Brandworkers International, a social action group that targets “sweatshop” food industry managers on behalf of workers.
The “educational” leaflets are clearly custom-written for KRM’s customers, citing the back-pay controversy and requesting that consumers “avoid” Flaum and Flaum-affiliated products (shying away from the word “boycott”), “send a message” to Grunhut and “demand” that he pays the protesting workers. The plea alludes to “dina d’malchsa,” the pre-eminence of civil authority law, and implores readers to “turn a chillul Hashem” (a desecration of God) into a kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of God).
“I’ve been reading the Torah, and I’ve been blown away,” said IWW organizer Benjamin Ferguson, an Episcopalian from Georgia. “It’s totally pro-unionization and strikes and anti-scabbing.”
Focus on the Food Chain has also targeted the Bodek and T’nuva brands, which Flaum distributes to New York-area kosher food stores.
In addition it has set its sights on Flaum’s newer breakout line of Middle Eastern foods under the label of Sonny and Joe’s, which it markets to high-end general supermarkets like Food Emporium and Fairway.
“We’re talking about fair and modest goals,” said Daniel Gross, Brandworkers’ executive director. “This case should have been settled a long time ago.”
The drive marks another chapter in the recent resurgence of the IWW, which had seen its glory days as the major American radical workers’ organization in the early 20th century and in the last few years has scored organizing gains at the Starbucks coffee and Jimmy John’s fast food chains.
The Focus on the Food Chain campaign was one player in last winter’s dispute that drew concessions to disaffected workers from New York City seafood purveyor Wild Edibles.
Signing on to the Flaum campaign has been Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice group, which has called on fellow Jews to perform “personal and communal teshuva [repentance]” to help the workers.
How many hearts and minds rose to protesters’ pleas is hard to assess, based on the experience of one recent Sunday outside the KRM Kollel store on 39th Street. The handful of fired Spanish-speaking workers, originally from Mexico and El Salvador and low on their English-language skills, determinedly thrust leaflets at shoppers and passersby while happily allowing professional organizers and activist volunteers to take on explaining duties. (One leafletter, 12-year-old Fredy Rivera, son of fired worker Juan Torres, pronounced the activity “fun.”)
One IWW volunteer was Eugene Lerner in dark goth-rock regalia. Said the Kiev-born writer and artist and “secular” Jew: “How you treat your poor and your workers are Jewish values. Flaum is very unkosher.”
Leah Danger, his fellow IWW member, agreed: “It’s an important value to help the people of the world. Employers have a responsibility to treat workers fairly.”
Locals took or shunned the leaflets and few commented, though one man did, and he wasn’t buying — the workers’ message, that is.
“The Wobblies!” shouted Meir Berman, referring to the old nickname for IWW’ers. “You’re still around?”
Berman engaged organizer Benjamin Ferguson in a spirited sidewalk debate ranging from Borough Park mores to personal snippets from the U.S. House of Representatives, dwelling on the recent political travails of Rep. Charles Rangel and the private vineyard interests of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The bearded Berman wasted no words in asserting why the protesters’ message was lost on him as well as his frum neighbors.
“It’s a community thing,” Berman proclaimed. “Nobody likes outside infiltrators.”
A boycott would hurt KRM workers, he argued. Besides, the store’s charitable giving “helps needy kids.”
Calculating the campaign’s overall chances he concluded flatly: “Not a snowball in hell.”
Reached by telephone, a manager of KRM said only, “It’s not my issue.”
No strangers to adversity, campaigners acknowledge their uphill battle but point to encouraging developments. One example is the recruitment to the fight of Uri L’Tzedek, which yokes traditional Jewish moral values to progressive political causes of the moment, such as the 2008 controversy around Iowa’s kosher-meat giant, Agriprocessors, whose executive, Sholom Rubashkin was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Another coup is the decision by Brooklyn’s large, politically left-tinged Park Slope Food Co-Op to drop the Sonny and Joe’s label from its shelves.
Uri L’Tzedek co-founder Ari Hart likened the Flaum efforts to increasing consumer awareness around the import of African “conflict” diamonds, which are said to be processed under harsh labor conditions then shipped through international trade pipelines utilized by observant Jewish merchants.
Basic Torah values must apply, Hart said, “whether it’s the diamonds we purchase, or the pickles we purchase.”
Hart reported that in the Orthodox community, even inside ultraconservative bastions like the Satmar chasidic enclave of Williamsburg, there are people who sympathize with the workers.
“The younger generation is generally more responsive,” he said.
Dasi Fruchter, an urban studies major at Queens College, is one example of this youthful openness. Enlisting in the Uri L’Tzedek effort for the fired Flaum workers, she observed that years of Orthodox indifference, if not hostility to ethical issues of Jew-on-gentile oppression is undergoing something of a reversal among her generational peers.
Yet even with this awakened consciousness, she said that making inroads among her grades-focused Queens College mates was not always easy.
“It’s definitely more challenging,” she reported, “compared to the Upper West Side.”
Eugene Eisner, a lawyer for the workers, said: “Flaum management has not been well advised. They should be sitting down to settlement discussions. Instead they have committed themselves to long and costly litigation. The only parties who will benefit will be the lawyers.”
Jeffrey Meyer and Arthur Kaufman, attorneys for Flaum, declined comment.