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How I Helped Organize a Shut Down for May Day

by new york solidarity Tuesday, May. 02, 2006 at 3:45 AM

A behind-the-scenes look at how workers at one Brooklyn bakery organized to shut down the store to honor Monday’s May Day immigrant rights work strike.

On Saturday I went to work early in the morning to serve coffee and sell muffins in a Brooklyn bakery. The kitchen staff is mostly Mexican and Ecuadorian men, the retail staff is largely young, not always white, but American-born women with other jobs or school on the side. There is a clear divide not just in our language or music or work schedules but, also, in the set up: we are the ‘face’ of the store, but the men in the ‘back’ do the real work that makes the store run. We always find ways to make it less serious and to get along. The guys will hide behind stuff and jump out and scare us on our way to the bathroom, or they’ll call us ninas (little girls in Spanish) while we’ll call them ninos (little boys), debating who is more immature. So we’re friends but no one ever talks about the larger political and social system that has put us in the ‘front’ and them in the ‘back. Sometimes they talk about being tired or we’ll talk about how they work way too hard, but it never goes further then that.

Towards the end of Saturday morning though, I turned to one of my retail co-workers, Diana, and asked her what she thought about the boycott for Monday. We got to talking and agreed that it was a great idea but we didn’t know how many people were going to do it. She asked me if the kitchen staff from our bakery was going to walk out, since they are all immigrants, and I told her that I didn’t know. Diana speaks Spanish so without us really thinking it through, she went to ask one of them about it. She reported back to me that she talked to Juan about it and he said he really wanted to do it, but that none of the other guys wanted to because they were worried about losing a day’s pay and more importantly they were worried that they would get fired. I’m not sure what happened but something really struck us and things just spiraled from there for the next four hours of our shift. We talked to some of the other guys about it in the kitchen and they all voiced the concern that they would get fired. She and I talked about it a bit more and decided to call the other retail workers who were on shift for Monday and ask them if they’d be willing to stay home from work if the kitchen staff needed them to. I spoke with each of them, and while there was some confusion at first, they all agreed that if this was going to help the kitchen staff then yes they would too.

We reported back to the kitchen staff that everyone in retail would stay out of work if they would also. They looked shocked. We were talking mostly with two guys, Juan and Pedro. Juan looked at us very seriously and you could tell that he didn’t really trust that it would happen. Pedro smiled big and I felt like we were in on something together. We talked in circles for a while about it, with no one really wanting to admit that it was going to happen. For the first time in the three years that I worked at the bakery, we were all interacting with each other with our real emotions and trying to find a way to make this happen together.

Finally, Juan and Pedro approached, John, who is the highest up person in the kitchen and also the closest of any staff person with the owners. One of the most important moments came when Juan was explaining in Spanish to John that when he talks to the owners he can’t name who started this and act like it was just a few people who were pushing it. I could tell that Juan was already worried that he had gone too far and might lose his job even if the shut down didn’t happen. Mostly we all felt nervous because we agreed that this bakery is pretty good and that we like the owners. So this was not a strike against them specifically but rather against the system. Finally John agreed to call them but he said he was going to act like he didn’t know anything about it but just that all the kitchen and retail had informed him they weren’t coming in on Monday because they needed to go to the immigration rallies.

I heard him on the phone and although the owners were all pretty upset by it, he made it sound so concrete and matter of fact that they couldn’t really do anything other than figure out how to cancel some orders for Monday and make sure things didn’t go to waste while the store was closed. We won’t see them until after Monday so I’m not sure if there will be a backlash or some serious questioning. Even though I am nervous about losing my job, I feel like we are all such an organized team now that we should be safe.

I didn’t wake up Saturday morning thinking that I was going to organize a shut down. I didn’t even ask that first question expecting much of an answer. I just had nothing to talk about at that moment and was curious. But hearing that it was really important to the kitchen staff and that they would do it if they felt like they had support was all we needed to want to participate.

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