The Fate of NYC’s Undocumented Bakers Could Change the Food Industry

Recently fired undocumented employees of Tom Cat Bakery are joining with worker advocates to urge the food industry to better protect immigrant workers under the Trump administration.


Last Thursday, a group of several dozen bakery workers, union organizers, and workers’ rights advocates took to the streets of midtown Manhattan to protest the firing of 24 undocumented immigrants at New York City’s artisanal Tom Cat Bakery last spring. Bearing signs in Spanish and English and chanting for a boycott of Tom Cat bread in New York restaurants, the protesters brought to the fore this question: Do businesses have a responsibility to their undocumented workers after a government crackdown? The answer could change the future of the food industry, which employs several million of the estimated 8 million undocumented workers nationwide.

Chants of “Qué queremos? Justicia! Cuando? Ahora!” (“What do we want? Justice! When? Now!” in Spanish) and “When immigrants are under attack, stand up, fight back!” rang through the air.

In April, Tom Cat Bakery was the target of an I-9 immigration audit by the Department of Homeland Security. Thirty-one of the bakery’s approximately 180 employees were told they needed to present documentation of their right to work in the US or face being fired; 24 eventually had their jobs terminated.

Daniel Gross, the founder and executive director of Brandworkers, a non-profit advocacy group that has helped organize the campaign against Tom Cat, said this was the first I-9 audit in the metropolitan New York area in over a decade. Although considering the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, it may be far from the last.

Following the administration’s recent decision to put an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) rule, and at a time when many eateries around the country have designated themselves “sanctuary restaurants,” but have little actual recourse in the face of immigration law, the protests are especially noteworthy.

“Workers believe that Tom Cat should serve as a model employer for what every employer in the United States should do in the Trump Era, which is adopt a set of immigrant worker protection practices,” Gross said. He added that the protest marked the latest escalation of workers’ campaign to get the food industry—buyers, growers, and makers—to “choose between immigrant colleagues in the culinary industry or stand with Trump’s hateful immigration policies.”

Since the firings, the terminated employees have held repeated protests, calling for fair severance payments and asking Tom Cat to adopt policies that would better protect undocumented workers. Gross also said the workers want Tom Cat to adopt a policy of “not allowing ICE into the facility during a raid without a warrant” and to guarantee employees sufficient time to produce documentation following an audit—more than the 10 days’ notice the Tom Cat employees received. “I can’t say enough how much that would have done to reduce harm and trauma,” he said.

If immigrant workers do end up losing their jobs, the protesters say that fair severance is critically important. Gross said that after a first round of negotiations with Brandworkers, Tom Cat “offered one week of severance pay for each year worked and committed to a second negotiation to continue the conversation. The company cancelled that negotiation and to this day has refused to honor its commitment to come back to the table.”

“We want a severance that is rational. We feel like what Tom Cat offered us was a slap in the face,” said Hector Solis, a baker originally from Mexico City who worked at Tom Cat for 12 years until he was fired last spring—and who has so far been unable to find another baking job, relying instead on construction work. “Tom Cat is where it is now because of us and the job that we did.”

The bakery’s attorney, William B. Wachtel, to whom the company directed all questions, told Civil Eats that any allegation that Tom Cat failed to adequately protect its employees during the audit is “beyond absurd.” Wachtel pointed out that most of the fired employees have by now accepted a settlement from Tom Cat, with only “six, seven, or eight workers” still refusing the severance package, which, Wachtel said, remains “on the table.”

When asked about the alleged commitment to a second round of negotiations, Wachtel stated, “Tom Cat has a union, it works with its union. The workers are covered by that union. All but a handful of employees have accepted the severance worked out through the union.” Wachtel added, “Tom Cat does everything it can to protect its employees and it always has. To my understanding, there’s nothing that they are asking for that Tom Cat doesn’t already do for its employees.”

With negotiations stalled, these rallies may finally be putting some real pressure on Tom Cat, which sells its bread to restaurants across the city. Le Bernardin, consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in America, announced last week that it would stop serving Tom Cat products as a sign of solidarity with the fired workers. Following that announcement, last week’s rally was re-routed to take place in front of Robert, the restaurant at the Museum of Arts and Design, which still carries the company’s bread. (Le Bernardin declined to comment on the matter, while Ark Restaurants, the restaurant group that owns Robert, did not return Civil Eats’ repeated requests for comment.)

Further evidence of momentum in the workers’ cause was offered at last week’s march by Erika Inwald, a member of the Labor Committee at the esteemed Park Slope Food Coop—one of the nation’s oldest food cooperatives. Inwald announced at the rally that her organization may soon be joining Le Bernardin in dropping Tom Cat Bread.

“I’m here today because I support labor justice in the food system,” Inwald told the crowd. “There are lot of people who are concerned about eating organically, in an environmentally sustainable way, that is humane for animals, but we also need to remember that labor is just as important as those other crucial factors.”

Across the food industry, workers, business owners, and advocates are preparing for more immigration crackdowns in the wake of President Trump’s executive order targeting undocumented workers. And with good reason: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over half of the workers on farms are undocumented, and the Pew Research Center estimates that 20 percent of dishwashers, 17 percent of cooks, and 16 percent of bakers are not working in the U.S. legally.

And although I-9 audits like at the Tom Cat bakery may become much more common in the coming months—right now such audits “are not very common at all,” said Jessie Hahn, a labor and employment policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “My hunch would be that this is because of the transition of administrations and that agencies still aren’t fully staffed nor is the leadership fully in place,” she added.

Even so, workers’ advocates are wondering why Tom Cat was singled out for an audit. Christopher Ho, senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work and Director of the National Origin, Immigration, and Language Rights Program, speculated that an audit can be used to “intimidat[e] immigrant employees who have asserted their workplace rights, whether individually or collectively, as the Tom Cat workers did when they unionized.” Earlier this year, two dairy workers who protested at a Ben & Jerry’s factory were arrested in Vermont in June, further raising advocates’ concerns about a crackdown.

If indeed government crackdowns on immigrant-staffed food businesses increase in the future, the lessons of the Tom Cat protests may play out, writ large, on the national level. While the Tom Cat negotiations continue, immigrant food workers remain in limbo. “It’s no secret that immigrant workers are living in constant fear,” said David Huerta, President of the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West. “The threat of I-9 audits where ICE agents or auditors review employees’ already verified documents and may try to justify further action, such as a worksite raid, only increases the fear workers are living with daily, regardless of their immigration status.”

Photos © Alex Swerdloff.

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