Bushwick, a section of Brooklyn bordered on the North by Flushing Avenue, on the South by the Cemetery of the Evergreens, in the East by St. Nicholas Avenue, and in the West by Broadway, is home to more than 100,000 people. Many of the people living here are recent Latin American immigrants from Mexico, primarily from the impoverished province of Puebla, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. Many others are citizens from Puerto Rico, a good number of whom have been living in the area for years.
Running through the center of Bushwick is Knickerbocker Avenue, one of the major shopping streets in the neighborhood. The street extends nearly a mile from the Knickerbocker Avenue stop on the M line of the subway to just beyond Maria Hernandez Park. Along this vibrant Avenue of stores are more than 175 stores employing hundreds of people from the neighborhood. Knickerbocker Avenue is similar to many other shopping streets that are scattered throughout New York City and it has always been a vibrant shopping area. From the 1950ís to the early 70ís mostly mom and pop shops inhabited the street with only a few small chain stores existing along side them. The shops were owned and patronized by the immigrants who had arrived early in the last century and by their U.S. born sons and daughters. Walking the streets along with store customers were business agents from the retail unions of New York City. More than fifty percent of the stores were covered by union contracts that provided pay above the minimum wage and modest health and time-off benefits.
Today the situation is different. On the street many stores, such as Jimmy Jazz, VIM, Pretty Girl, 99 Cent City, Footco USA, and others are part of small chains that have stores located in similar shopping areas throughout New York City. Almost all the stores on the Avenue now either pay the minimum wage or below the legal wage. Some stores that pay the minimum wage do not pay the legal overtime pay rate of time-and-one-half for all hours worked beyond forty hours in a week. There are workers who are paid $260 a week for 84 hours of work; that pay amounts to $3.10 per hour. Almost none of these shops pay a living wage or provide any health benefits. The majority of stores do not even provide time-off benefits. In some of the shops female workers, who make up the majority of the employees on the Avenue, have had to endure sexual harassment from the owners. As one walks down the street on a bitterly cold day one can see workers required to stand in the cold for their entire workday of 10 hours or more. On a retail strip where once more than fifty percent of the shops were unionized, there are only two union stores--Rite Aid and Met Food. That is two out of nearly 200 stores.
Make the Road New York! Latin American Integration Center and Make the Road by Walking celebrated the announcement of their merger at SEIU 32BJ's Auditorium on Wednesday, September 19, 2007 to a packed audience. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, joined us to celebrate the event.