“New York is a union town!” Bröd Kitchen workers fight back

On Friday evening, Feb. 19, workers and activists flooded the sidewalk surrounding Bröd Kitchen’s West Village location in response to its latest slew of retaliatory firings.

I knew I had nearly reached the site of the demonstration as I heard shouts echoing through the West Village streets and shops from a few blocks away. Entering the back of the picket line, I found myself in a sea of signs, leaflets, and jostling voices. The crowd continued to grow, prompting police to adjust and readjust their barricades in order to accommodate the swell of people congregated in solidarity with the café workers. Car horns bleated the support of their drivers, and delivery workers rode by on their bikes in the close-quartered street, passing with raised fists. Shouts of “Bröd Workers, we are with you!” resonated in the street.

Bröd Kitchen is a Nordic bakery and sandwich shop with two locations currently established in New York City. The first, situated uptown in Manhattan’s Lenox Hill, was a revamped store emerging from the former Hot and Crusty Bakery Café after workers, through a prolonged struggle with its owners, won official union recognition in the latter half of 2012. The West Village store, sitting across from NYU’s Tisch Hall downtown, is where the latest developments of that labor struggle have emerged. 

The February 19th demonstration was the third to be organized at this site in less than a month. On January 14th, when negotiations over a new contract were to commence with the Hot and Crusty Workers Association at the uptown shop, Bröd Kitchen announced they would be closing the store the next day, citing financial difficulties. Meanwhile, they would be keeping the newer, non-unionized location open in the West Village that, based on Bröd Kitchen’s Facebook messaging, appears to have begun operations in the beginning of September 2015. The abrupt implementation of this transition was later extended to a 30-day period.

However, a large demonstration was organized in response on January 29th involving hundreds of unionists, immigrants, students, and activists in solidarity with the Bröd workers. Mahoma Lopez, president of the Hot and Crusty Workers Association (an affiliate of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco and Grain Millers union) , was fired, along with union activist Marcelino Cano. An immediate response was organized in a matter of hours protesting the retaliation; Bröd Kitchen responded by firing an additional worker, Layla Mejilla. Most recently, Bröd has been threatening to decertify the union completely, a drastic measure which spurred the February 19th mobilization.

The Laundry Workers Center, which has been instrumental from the very beginning in organizing the Hot and Crusty workers, estimated over 300 people were present at this event with more than 20 New York City-based unions and activist groups represented. The New York City Central Labor Council made announcements for the picket line on Friday. Workers from the electronics retailer B&H Photo, who have been engaged in a victorious unionization effort inspired by the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, were also present, and People’s World was able to conduct interviews with two of them which may be viewed here: <link>.

Other unions and groups represented included Verizon phone workers of CWA; Teamsters Local 814; Hunter College cafeteria workers; Domestic Workers United; CUNY Internationalist Club; Crown Heights Tenants Union, CPUSA, Nail Salon organizers with Workers United, and many others.

While Bröd employees are far from isolated, they have been faced with extremely divisive tactics being launched against them.  As workers formed a picket line in front of the downtown store on January 29th, Bröd Kitchen posted and distributed leaflets, ostensibly coming from their non-unionized work force on West 4th street, calling on their customers, in bold lettering, to support them by crossing the picket line to “stop this union from stealing our jobs.”  In light of the fact that most of Hot and Crusty Workers Association is comprised of immigrant and African American workers, the job-stealing rhetoric echoes racist, anti-immigrant narratives. We can see that racially charged appeals remain one of the most immediate and convenient tools for maintaining divisions as a method of social control, even at a time when its violent effects across the country are coming increasingly into focus.

Bröd owners’ attempts to pit the two stores against one another intensified in preparation for the February 19th rally when they closed the downtown store for good. Lopez said that this measure is meant to protect their level of command over labor from the threats of yet another developing union, a measure that was used in 2012, three months after the Hot and Crusty Workers Association first gained official union status. The union continues to seek protection for the workers of both stores.

Bröd Kitchen has claimed its closings in the past have had to do with financial constraints, but the timing of these events point in a different direction. Union requests for information concerning the store’s financial data have been denied. Employees of the café have reason to find the claims of financial hardship suspicious as Hugo Uys, the South African celebrity chef who is part owner of Bröd Kitchen, has been an adventurous investor. He has also been part owner of Shag, a cocktail lounge; a restaurant called Paris Commune; and a high-end pet accessories line selling internationally at stores like Bloomingdales, Federated, Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue. Hugo Uys also recently won a multimillion-dollar auction bid, with a group of investors he represents, from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for a large, high-end restaurant in Grand Central Station.

The café has remained equally evasive about basic features of its managerial and ownership structures. Bröd corporate partner Monette de Botton has maintained that Hugo Uys acts solely as a consultant for the West 4th street location and holds no ownership share. She has further insisted that the uptown and downtown locations are completely separate entities. Yet there is no information to be found on their website and social media or anywhere else to hint at a separation, and de Botton has also refused to reveal who the owner of the downtown location is. Blogs and reviews of Bröd Kitchen routinely cite Uys and de Botton as partners of the two stores as a whole, and Uys himself has tweeted reviews of the downtown store that refer to him as an owner. Moreover, Lopez and other workers have said that workers and managers alike have at times been sent from one establishment to the other.

The show of force in all of the Bröd workers’ demonstrations have been strong and included wide networks, though it would appear that Bröd Kitchen underestimated the level of support and organization surrounding its workers. At this point in the struggle, it seems the Hot and Crusty Workers Association and Bröd Kitchen employees are again faced with the need to force a reopening, while fighting to maintain the store they have already unionized. Plans have also been underway since October of last year to open a third store across the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ.

The owners’ choice to use their various site locations as a cover for shady practices reflect tactics that many fast food and other franchise store employees might be familiar with. At a time when the Fight for 15 is gaining strength with its demands for a $15 an hour minimum wage and universally enjoyed union rights, the fight being waged by the Hot and Crusty Workers Association in New York City will have a strong effect on countless working and oppressed people. It will be of crucial importance moving forward that movements to build the power of labor find their expression in unity with movements like Black Lives Matter to ensure dignity, equality and security for immigrant and African-American people. As we heard many times on the corner of West 4th street and Greene this past Friday evening, “New York is a union town!”

Photo: Video snapshot  |  Estevan Nembhard/PW


Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.