Cold cuts: Key Food workers locked out amid negotiations over slashed benefits

Cold cuts: Key Food workers locked out amid negotiations over slashed benefits
Photo by Colin Mixson

These workers are being treated like a piece of meat.

Butchers and meat wrappers at the Fifth Avenue Key Food in Park Slope have been locked out of work for more than 10 days amid ongoing union negotiations with the store’s owner, who has replaced his meat men with temporary workers as he seeks to eliminate their existing health and retirement benefits, according to the out-of-work workers.

The meat vendors have not been idle during their forced suspension, and the scorned Key Food staff have placed inflatable pigs and rats outside the market in an effort to expose the boss’s cutthroat tactics to their longtime customers. The dramatic sidewalk display is necessary for the workers to get their jobs back and support their families, they said.

“I got my wife and two daughters, my granddaughter and grandson, and I have a mortgage to pay,” said Alexander Torres, a Key Food butcher for 21 years. “It’s not easy.”

The Park Slope workers are among some 40 employees that grocery store magnate Benjamin Levine — who owns four Kings County Key Foods, including stores in Sunset Park, Greenpoint, and Bensonhurst, in addition to the Park Slope market — kicked to the curb on April 7, in retaliation to workers picketing the store during their lunch hour the day before, an action they undertook in response to the owner failing to show at several bargaining meetings.

Reps for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 342 have been bargaining with Levine for more than two years, trying to prevent the annihilation of their members’ health and retirement benefits, in addition to netting the workers a modest pay increase after four years without any raises, according to a member of the union’s negotiating team.

“They’re actively trying to take ways stuff the employee’s already had,” said Lisa O’Leary, secretary treasurer for UFCW Local 342. “These people haven’t had a raise in four years. They’re not being greedy.”

The butchers, who have been replaced by temporary workers amid the lockout, have urged customers to shop elsewhere during the lockout. Many shoppers have heeded the call and sought their groceries elsewhere, but older Park Slopers tend to ignore their please for lack of any nearby alternative, according to Torres.

“Some people, especially old, people walk in,” he said. “They say they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Nobody wants to get back into Key Food more than the locked-out staffers, who described the crushing stress of unpaid bills and looming rent deadlines.

“It’s hurts so bad, to be treated like this — I’m a human being,” said Leslie Callier, who has worked as a meat wrapper at Key Food for more than 30 years. “I’m terribly stressed out. I can’t sleep. I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent. It’s killing me.”

Levine could not be reached for comment.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.