Growing Tensions

"Lettuce unionize" is the cry at Classic Cuts Produce.

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Classic Cuts Produce won't make anyone's A-list of preferred employers. Wages start at a humble $5.50 an hour and ascend to an average of $7-$8 at the small East 40th Street company, which prepares fruit and vegetable trays for restaurants and institutional customers.

But according to Lou Maholic, an organizer with the United Food & Commercial Workers, the benefits are worse. They include "improper sanitation, large rats, a roof that leaks when it rains." And when workers show up in the morning, he says, they never know if quitting time will come at 4 p.m., 10 p.m., or anywhere in between, making it difficult to catch buses and arrange day care. Overtime, Maholic says, is mandatory.

So employees unionized under the UFCW banner. Nearly a year later, they're still without a contract. Maholic says two workers have already been fired for their union activity, and employees must now go to the office to request toilet paper to answer nature's call. All of which has led to a dozen complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

"His ego was hurt that these workers voted for union representation," Maholic says of Classic Cuts boss Carl LoPresti Jr. "Temp workers won't even last a full shift because of the conditions."

LoPresti is CEO of A. LoPresti & Sons, which workers describe as Classic Cuts' parent company, though the two are technically separate entities. LoPresti referred questions to attorney Jeffrey Embleton. But talk to Embleton, and you get the impression that he and Maholic aren't speaking about the same place.

No one's been fired for union activism, the attorney says. The building passes regular inspections. There's no forced overtime, workers usually get off by mid-afternoon, and no one must beg the front office for toilet paper. Besides, he notes, Classic Cuts already pays $1.50 more per hour than its competitors and is among the few to provide health care. "It's a fine place to work," he says.

Yet Maholic says the company's best offer includes just a 13-cent-per-hour raise, which would keep workers, who number fewer than 20, firmly planted near poverty level. So last week, Jobs With Justice, a coalition of union, community, and religious groups, held a rally outside Classic Cuts to step up public pressure. And union members voted to authorize a strike. It may foretell a long summer.

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