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How FreshDirect Delivers Misery Along With Your Groceries--And How Workers and the Community are Fighting Back

The upscale grocery delivery service pays less than $9 an hour, has faced discrimination complaints, and is a union-buster--so why is New York giving it a handout?

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“I think they're using us,” Josephina Colon, a South Bronx resident, told AlterNet.

Exploited Workers

Even if FreshDirect does bring 300 new jobs to the South Bronx, what kind of jobs will they be?

FreshDirect's current workers barely make a living. Nearly 40 percent of the company's employees make less than $25,000 a year. For hauling boxes in the refrigerated warehouse in Long Island City, workers get $8.75 an hour; drivers make $8 and the chance of being tipped—but since the company already charges a $5 delivery fee and requires customers to pre-pay by credit card, tips are anything but a sure thing.

Local 805 has been struggling for years to organize the FreshDirect workers, who Pope points out make about 20 to 25 percent less in wages and benefits than other non-union workers in the city. The company, though, has used every trick in the book to block the organizing drive.

Public Advocate deBlasio wrote in 2010 that the workers make only two-thirds of what the average warehouse worker makes nationwide—this in one of the most expensive cities in the country. The healthcare package FreshDirect offers is unaffordable to most of its employees, Pope said. And in the past four years, the company has faced 27 discrimination complaints and nine unfair labor claims filed with city, state and federal agencies.

“We spent 2010 and 2011 working on pressuring FreshDirect to just agree to neutrality, no card check, just an expedited election,” Pope told AlterNet. The maintenance workers led the way in the union fight, but, Pope said, at the last minute the company moved workers into the maintenance unit, stacking the vote against the union. Still, even with all the company's pressure, they only lost the union election by a single vote.

Low-wage jobs like the ones FreshDirect provides often leave workers dependent on public assistance to pay their bills. So taxpayers end up on the hook both for the subsidies and tax breaks given to the company to keep it from leaving town, and then on the back end, paying for workers who can't afford health insurance but still get sick, or can't afford to feed their families without SNAP and WIC benefits The Bronx already has plenty of working poor residents struggling to get by. Will 300 more low-wage jobs change anything?

Pope remains convinced that the company is only viable because the government keeps it afloat. “You've got a company that has not yet proven they can operate without subsidies, with an underpaid workforce with no benefits. What if they actually had to pay people even minimally OK wages and benefits?” she asked.

Immigration Raids and the Chill Factor

In the midst of the Teamsters' organizing drive at FreshDirect, a surprise Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit was announced, checking the low-wage employees for immigration documents. According to Pope, about 300 workers were driven off by the immigration check.

Pope suspects the company called in an audit in order to break up their organizing drive. It wouldn't be the first time ICE has conveniently arrived just in time to shut down workers' attempt at forming a union.

Under the Obama administration, silent ICE audits have replaced worksite raids as the method of choice for cracking down on undocumented workers. While there are consequences and penalties against the employer, it’s the employees who bear the brunt of the impact as they are the ones out of a job. "If you’re an employer in a facility being unionized, an ICE audit is basically a gift in disguise because firing undocumented workers turns into an act of compliance with the law, as opposed to busting a union,” Carlos Jimenez, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union, said.