New York Times (New York)
By Tejal Rao
April 21, 2017
The protest over a Department of Homeland Security investigation that began in December and threatened the jobs of several immigrant workers at Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City, Queens, was meant to begin at 6 a.m. on Friday.
But at 3 a.m., a few protesters arrived at the factory and chained themselves to the bakery’s trucks, disrupting morning deliveries. Four people were arrested, the police said.
By 7, more than 100 people had gathered in the rain, carrying signs that read “No Human Is Illegal” and “Rise and Resist.” Members of a marching band, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, played as a group of 100 people marched back and forth along 10th Street, chanting in both Spanish and English.
Others in the food business around New York joined in the demonstrators’ call for “A Day Without Bread.” Eli and Max Sussman, brothers who run the Brooklyn restaurant Samesa, posted signs drawing attention to the protest, and to the rights of immigrant workers. On Friday, they donated 50 cents from the sale of every item that includes pita bread to a fund set up for workers. And at the register, they collected additional money.
Yemeni bodega owners in Bay Ridge and other parts of southern Brooklyn put up posters in solidarity and in some cases refused to sell any bread on Friday. Many of the bodega owners who shut their stores in February, to protest President Trump’s travel ban, feel that the most vulnerable and weakest are being targeted, said Rabyaah Althaibani, a Yemeni-American activist.
Tom Cat Bakery, which employs about 180 workers in Long Island City, opened in 1987 and was acquired last July by Yamazaki Baking Company, one of Japan’s largest bread producers; it supplies breads to many New York restaurants and stores.
Last month, the company advised workers that it was being investigated by federal immigration officials.
Henry Rivera, an employee for 11 years, said he and 30 other workers were each called into a private meeting with a manager and told that they could lose their jobs if they didn’t produce paperwork by this Friday showing they could work legally in the United States.
“A lot went through my head,” said Mr. Rivera, 29, a father of two and an immigrant from Honduras, who spoke in Spanish. “Like, how will I pay my rent, and my bills.”
Brandworkers, a nonprofit group that is an advocate for food-manufacturing workers, began organizing protests with Tom Cat employees.
Rachael Yong Yow, a spokeswoman for the New York field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Homeland Security Department, would neither confirm nor deny that federal officials were investigating the bakery. The agency can fine any employer that knowingly hires unauthorized workers up to $21,916 per employee.
William Wachtel, a spokesman for Tom Cat, said in a phone interview on Friday that the company first learned it was undergoing a routine audit in December, and later sought to help and retain all its employees, advising 31 people with inadequate documentation to seek immigration counsel, and offering to assist with payments for lawyers. At least nine employees were able to produce the necessary paperwork, Mr. Wachtel said, and will remain with the company.
Keith Bleier, Tom Cat’s chief executive, said in a statement that the past few weeks had been a challenge for the bakery, and he praised his work force. “As you may know, your union, Local 53, stepped in and worked with us to ensure that the terms under which the affected employees are being released are consistent with the high value Tom Cat places on its family of workers,” he wrote.
In an interview outside the factory, Oscar Ramirez, who worked at Tom Cat for 12 years, and is losing his job, said he did not feel scared or intimidated. “We’ve all done the best we can all these years,” he said, “and we demand justice and respect.”
Despite the protest, by 7:30, the unmistakable smell of baking bread was in the air on 10th Street. “Work is getting done today, just at a really slow pace,” said Jay Rosario, 26, a Tom Cat employee who stepped out for a smoking break.
Mr. Rosario was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn, the son of Puerto Rican and Dominican parents. He started working the transfer belt at Tom Cat about three months ago, managing dough production.
“They trained me,” he said of his protesting colleagues. “I have this job because of them. But also, isn’t 20 years long enough to get all your papers?”
Mr. Rosario was not sure how his co-workers might obtain the proper papers, and wondered why a manager had not sat everyone down and explained what was going on.
“Either way, it’s unfair,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print on April 22, 2017, on Page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Immigration Inquiry at Queens Bakery Leads to ‘A Day Without Bread’.
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