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Rabbis Demand Back Pay for Cheese Workers

A Michael Moore-style demand for a meeting with executives is rejected as an Orthodox social-justice organization seeks unpaid overtime for employees of a kosher cheese-maker.

August 3, 2011
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Carrying signs that read “Worker Exploitation Ain’t Kosher” and “Rabbis Against Worker Exploitation,” rabbis, workers and activists rallied Aug. 2 in front of the Lexington Avenue headquarters of Apax Partners, the private equity firm that owns the Israeli-based kosher cheese giant Tnuva Food Industries.

A delegation of rabbis was turned away at the front entrance to the office building when they tried to enter, Michael Moore-style, to demand a meeting with Apax executives.

Tnuva distributes its cheeses in the city via Flaum Appetizing Corp., a Brooklyn-based company that also makes pickles, hummus and herring. Flaum is challenging a 2009 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that it unlawfully retaliated against workers who had organized to fight for overtime pay, arguing that it should not have to pay some $270,000 in back pay because the workers were undocumented.

Flaum is banking on a 2002 Supreme Court decision in Hoffman Plastics Compound v. National Labor Relations Board, in which the court found the company did not have to give back pay to a worker who was fired for participating in a union drive because he was undocumented.

“That’s their defense, but we haven’t been convinced that they have enough evidence to prove that case,” said Alvin Blyer, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board.

More than 60 leading supermarkets, including Fairway, Zabar’s, Food Emporium and the Park Slope Food Co-op have refused to carry Flaum products until the company settles with the workers, but Tnuva has not used its influence with Flaum to push for a settlement. A dozen prominent rabbis have been trying to engage Tnuva.

“I care about the Jewish leaders of Flaum doing the right thing,” said Steven Exler, assistant rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. “The Bible speaks in multiple places about wage workers, and here we’re really talking about workers who have been denied wages.”

Felipe Romero Perez said he worked 70 to 80 hours a week at Flaum and never got paid overtime. “What we want is justice,” he said.

A spokesman for Apax did not immediately return a call seeking comment. When asked about the rally, a Flaum representative said, “You can call back next month,” and hung up the phone.

The rally was organized by Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, and Focus on the Food Chain, a campaign that challenges wage theft and substandard working conditions in the city’s food processing and distribution warehouses.   

Filed by Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

 

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