News | Upper West Side

Local activists wage anti-sweatshop campaign

A fair labor organization is reaching out to Columbia students in an effort to eliminate sweatshop conditions in Upper West Side and Morningside Heights restaurants.

Every Thursday morning, members of the Justice Will Be Served! campaign pass out fliers on College Walk and encourage students to think about where they shop and eat. The organization, which was founded about a year ago, has boycotted restaurants where it says employees are mistreated and has convinced 67 local businesses to sign a pledge to eliminate sweatshop conditions.

The group plans to make a big push next month, with a goal of getting 100 businesses on board by the end of November. Its leadership says that campus outreach is an important part of that effort.

“Students have a very important role in spreading this campaign, in letting people know what’s going on,” said Wendy Cheung, one of the campaign’s organizers. For example, she said, “You see a lot of fliers that say pizza is provided at an event, and I wonder if they know where their pizza is coming from.”

For campaign members, pizza has been a major focus. Carlos Rodriguez, who takes the bus from the Bronx to Morningside Heights every Thursday to hand out fliers, said he was forced to work long hours for low wages at an Upper West Side Domino’s. Rodriguez said he cleaned, cooked, and delivered pizzas for up to 65 hours a week, but was paid less than minimum wage, at the Domino’s at 89th Street and Columbus Avenue—until he complained and was fired, he said.

A little while later, he saw a Justice Will Be Served! protest at a nearby restaurant and decided to organize his co-workers and other workers in the neighborhood, he said.

Meme Daff, a manager at the 89th Street Domino’s, said that he’s “never heard” complaints about unfair labor practices.

“We don’t have those problems here,” he said.

Cheung was also fired from her job at a nonprofit a few years ago for complaining about “doing the work of two or three people,” she said.

“I was a college grad, and I was like, ‘How can this happen?’” she said.

Activists say they’re making progress, citing success stories like V&T Pizzeria & Restaurant at 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The owner signed the pledge, but Cheung said that V&T employees then complained of discrimination, and of pay that was less than minimum wage. After organizing with help from the campaign, “the workers won better conditions and are keeping their jobs,” Cheung said.

“It’s a very significant change, because in the past, many workers were forced to leave their jobs,” she said.

V&T owner Alex Gjolaj disputed that account, saying that V&T never mistreated its employees and that he had no recollection of signing the campaign’s pledge.

“Sometimes they come in and say, ‘Will you please sign this paper?’ So you do ... but I don’t have any idea what it is,” Gjolaj said.

But other local businesses, including many of the 67 who signed the anti-sweatshop pledge, said that they were impressed by the activists’ efforts.

“It should make a difference if enough people sign it,” said Bob Fendell, owner of University Housewares at 113th Street and Broadway. “Sometimes people need to be nudged in the good direction.”

“It was very important, just because our workers are our livelihood,” said Michael Zoulis, owner of Tom’s Restaurant at 112th Street and Broadway. “Our workers have been here for a long time, so obviously, we treat them well.”

The pledge “might’ve opened our eyes even more [to] make sure if there are any difficulties or anything, we’d work them out,” he added.

Jim Ma, a manager at Janoff’s Stationery on Broadway between 111th and 112th streets, also signed the pledge.

“Treating our employees right is something we have always regarded highly, with or without any pledge,” he said.

Meanwhile, activists are still boycotting restaurants they say have unfair conditions, including the Domino’s that Rodriguez was fired from and Saigon Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant at 100th Street and Amsterdam.

“Many more workers are coming forward. It’s something really positive that’s happening,” Cheung said. “We’re seeing the victories with V&T, improvement of work conditions, better conditions on the Upper West Side. We hope that gives an example for other communities, as well.”


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