On Monday, Bonnie Mingo, a meat wrapper at Key Food (224 McGuinness Blvd) buried her mother. On Saturday, she was on strike.
With little time to mourn, Mingo suddenly found herself locked out of a job she’s had for 20 years. “I’m still here supporting my coworkers when I could be out grieving. It’s hard,” she said in a late-afternoon interview, taking a break from picketing.
She, along with six coworkers, are battling Pick Quick Foods, Inc., a member of Key Food Co-op and owner of seven groceries in Brooklyn and Long Island. Approximately 35 other meat department workers in the company are also barred from returning to work in retaliation for a strike organized on Saturday, stated representatives from United Food and Commercial Workers’ Local 342.
.@KeyFood union workers are ON STRIKE! The Greenpoint Key Food owner has locked out employees for fighting for healthcare, retirement and fair wages.
Call 718-296-9100 today and tell them you stand with the workers! pic.twitter.com/taAR3XTfvn
— Elizabeth Adams (@ElizabAdams) April 7, 2019
Despite assertions that management refuses to negotiate, a public relations spokesperson from Pick Quick Foods disagrees. “We are waiting for Local 342 to return to the bargaining table,” they wrote in an emailed statement.
Seeds of this past weekend’s drama began last year when the owner of Pick Quick Foods, Benjamin J. Levine, and meat department workers started brokering a new contract after failing to reach an agreement years beforehand.
While there was the customary back-and-forth, Levine’s terms were unsatisfactory. He was trying to “gut” the contract, declared Kelly Eagan, director of Local 342, in a phone interview. She said he was proposing to cut health insurance, pensions, annuities, and access to fair wages.
Pick Quick Foods, though, disputes Eagan’s claim. “We have made offers to the union to continue competitive wages and benefits for our employees. However, the union continues to reject those proposals and is making demands that we believe will hurt our stores and customers and, by extension, our employees.”
Tensions elevated last week. Eagan alleged that ownership abruptly went dark. “They didn’t return any emails or call.”
The union decided to get their attention.
When Mingo returned to work this past Saturday, what seemed like a usual shift of stocking the meat aisle, checking prices, and ensuring everything to be in tip-top shape, turned topsy-turvy.
Union representatives from Local 342 walked in and asked members to picket outside. Mingo initially didn’t desert. “I didn’t go out, because I said if we’re not all going, I’m not going. Because one person is not going to make a difference.”
But, at 3 p.m., the union representatives came back. “They said, ‘Listen. Now, we’re all going out. Stop what you’re doing. Leave everything there.’ I looked at my other members and said, are we gonna do this together? They said yes, and we left.”
When Mingo and her coworkers returned to the grocery store Sunday morning, they discovered that their voluntary decision to leave work became compulsory. The workers were barred from entry and replaced with workers sourced through the Key Food Co-op.
“I never wanted it to come to this. It hurts,” Mingo said.
For now, despite a letter from their union asking to unconditionally return to work, Mingo and others across Pick Quick Foods’s four Brooklyn and three Long Island locations remain locked out.
However, ownership asserts that it is working to end the dispute quickly. “[W]e are working hard to see a contract with Local 342 is reached as soon as possible that is fair to both our employees and customers,” said their spokesperson.
Took a break from #ParticipatoryBudgeting to join @UFCW Local 342 (meat dep’t) workers on strike at the Key Food on 5th & Baltic. No contract in 4 yrs & owner trying to roll back health benefits. Please honor their picket line until he signs a fair contract with them. pic.twitter.com/ITvXMwdlbZ
— Brad Lander (@bradlander) April 6, 2019
In the meantime, customers are catching wind of the debacle and deciding to take their business elsewhere. Brad Lander, the NYC councilman for the 39th District, declared his support on Twitter and asked patrons to “please honor their picket line.”
And outside Key Food on Monday evening, Maddy Williams, a resident of Greenpoint, explained that after hearing of the lockout, she shopped at another grocery store. (She returned that evening, however. She couldn’t resist cheap tomatoes.)
For Bonnie Mingo, cheap tomatoes aren’t what she’s after. It’s getting back to the job. “I love what I do. I’ve been doing this for 32 years for two different companies,” she explained. “My family is [sic] the customers in Greenpoint.”
And while she loves her work, Mingo hasn’t lost track of priorities—despite a week suffused with grief and indignation.
“Point blank. Give us our money.”