Manhattan’s Upper West Side is known throughout the nation as the quintessential liberal Jewish neighborhood, whose residents are particularly known for their taste in appetizing. A conflict between gastronomic passion and ethical values was exposed in the fall of 1996, when three workers were fired by Citarella, one of the neighborhoods finest fish stores, after signing United Food and Commercial Workers Union authorization cards. Many of the largely-immigrant workers in the “downstairs” kitchen at Citarella were been paid less than minimum wage, and worked up to 66 hours per week with no overtime pay.
Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, a local New York City community education and advocacy organization, joined a boycott of the store initiated by the UFCW. JFREJ activists participated in a weekly picket at the store, invoking Jewish labor history and halachic strictures advocating the fair treatment of workers such as Deuteronomy 24:14 says, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a non-citizen in your communities.” Exercising basic first amendment rights didn’t prove easy, as one JFREJ activist was arrested for picketing on charges that were later dismissed.
Many of neighbors crossed the picket lines, but many were swayed by our presence. Our vocal and visible reminder of the Jewish responsibility to ensure that our enjoyment does not come at the expense of the oppression of others, pushed many of our neighbors to shop at union stores while the conflict was going on.
Six months later, the fired Citarella workers gained a victory, getting reinstated with back pay, and exacting a promise from the owner to post “right to unionize” signs throughout the shop. The union especially thanked JFREJ for increasing community pressure on the owner of the store, who admitted that his business had substantially dropped during the boycott. This victory was just one example of aiding the many workers, domestic workers, grocery workers, restaurant workers, who work in sweatshop-like conditions to provide a high “quality of life,” to middle class folks.