An inquiry into the immigration status of workers at the Tom Cat Bakery was launched in December by the Department of Homeland Security. By April, the bakery threatened to fire at least 31 of their employees if they did not produce documents to prove their legal status within 10 days.

The workers resisted these discriminatory efforts, and their workplace’s compliance with these efforts. They staged a demonstration in front of their workplace, demanding accountability from the bakery.

Shadowproof spoke with Gabriel Morales, campaign director at Brandworkers, a member-led organization of workers in this local food production industry organizing. He described the fight for Tom Cat Bakery workers as speaking directly to President Donald Trump administration’s “inhumane clampdown on immigrants, the backbone of New York’s food industry.”

Tom Cat Bakery isn’t a run-of-the-mill pâtisserie. Morales explained that the establishment serves some of New York’s most exclusive hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets, and workers help run what amounts to a 24-hour operation, “pouring their time and energy into baking, packaging, and delivering fresh bread and pastries to the public.”

Yet, despite their hard work, Morales said employees at Tom Cat, like many in New York’s local food production industry, are subjected to unsustainable working conditions.

Since 2007, Brandworkers has worked to combat the prevailing business model in New York City’s local food sector, which exploits primarily immigrant workers and undermines the sustainability of the regional food system.

Organizing work, according to Morales, is centered around securing substantial job quality gains in their own workplaces. They even won back $2.5 million in unlawfully withheld wages, “while developing a durable method of organizing that builds the transformative power and leadership of immigrant, [people of color], and Spanish-speaking workers.”

Since 2011, Brandworkers has worked closely with Tom Cat Bakery workers. In March, after being notified of the I-9 audit by DHS, they knew that workers had two choices: leave the job and life they’d worked on for years or resist the unjust laws that threaten to destroy their livelihoods.

Morales told Shadowproof that a few days after the I-9 audit, workers met as a group to discuss any available strategies and options.

Tom Cat Bakery had previously ignored requests from lawyers for more information about the audit. “The workers knew they had to force Tom Cat’s hand into negotiations,” Morales recalled.

Workers organized a march and rally outside the bakery. Hundreds of supporters joined them. At the march, workers and allies carried a banner that read “Luchamos Por Nuestras Familias”—or “We Fight For Our Families”—and told their stories.

“The Trump administration may have wanted immigrant workers to quietly disappear, but they’ve refused to go away silently. Later in the month, they took the fight directly to Trump’s doorstep with a powerful action at Trump Tower in Manhattan,” Morales said.

On April 21, which they referred to as “a day without bread,” workers called on restaurant operators and consumers across the city to refrain from serving or eating bread “to show support for them and the thousands of immigrant workers responsible for New York’s soaring local food production industry, and for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants whose work sustains other industries across the city.”

The day without bread strengthened their May Day strike, where they joined thousands of other immigrant workers across the country in a general strike against a discriminatory, inhumane immigration system.

Morales said there are currently two issues with Tom Cat Bakery that remain outstanding. First, Tom Cat Bakery must implement common sense policies that protect immigrant workers. The majority of what workers are asking for is already being recommended by Tom Cat’s own attorney.

“None of the policy changes cost any money, yet they mitigate a host of risks for the company and are of significant benefit to immigrant families in these difficult times,” Morales asserted.

Secondly, Brandworkers want a just and dignified severance. The current proposal Tom Cat Bakery offered, which is a week’s pay per year of service, was rejected by Brandworkers members because “workers need a severance that gives them a reasonable chance of rebuilding their lives.”

The efforts of Brandworkers, and the resolve of the Tom Cat Bakery workers, is inspiring. They built a coalition of laborers and service workers that are united in their efforts to abolish a system that routinely targets the most marginalized. Their actions have continued to inspire other immigrants to stand up against anti-immigrant policies.

“These workers risked a lot to come to this country. They’ve had a dream of making a better life for our families – and they’ve largely achieved that dream,” Morales declared. “Their kids were born here in America. They go to school here in New York, and they have a real shot at a brighter future.”

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at Roqchams.com.