May Day protest levels accusations of labor abuses against New Haven stores

AmakaUchegbu-May-Day-protest
Photo by Amaka Uchegbu.

As students spent Friday evening safeguarding their GPAs against final exams, Good Nature Market owner Blyant Ko was protecting his store from scores of May Day protesters attempting to storm the establishment.

Roughly 50 protesters broke off from an annual May Day march Friday afternoon to demonstrate in front of Good Nature Market, formerly known as Gourmet Heaven, and accuse the current management of wage theft, with some of those demonstrators pushing to the front of the crowd and attempting to enter the store. Six on-duty policemen and women, who were tasked with monitoring the protesters as they marched down Elm Street, rushed to prevent the protesters from entering.

“That was a blip,” said New Haven Police Department officer Julie Johnson. “It was hard because so many people went up there and tried to storm it. Ultimately they got back on track.”

Each year, activists from the New Haven area and beyond gather on the New Haven Green on May Day to draw attention to labor and immigration infractions occurring throughout the area. On Friday, over 500 protesters from 15 different organizations, including 32 members of the Japanese Labor Union who flew in for the event from Japan, marched through New Haven as part of this annual demonstration. Though attendees and onlookers spoke favorably about the turnout and unity of the protesters, opinions differed on whether or not the protest became violent.

Good Nature Market employee Joshua Ham and Ko, who rushed out from behind the tills of Gheav to protect their store said the behavior of the protesters Friday evening was unacceptable.

“The protesters were cursing at me and accusing me of wage theft,” Ko said as he looked down at his hands, which were still bleeding and trembling from the incident.  “Look at my hands and arms. People tried to hurt me.”

For Ham, the attempted storm on Good Nature Market was “weird,” happening very quickly and for reasons he did not understand. According to Ham, since the management at the store changed over, there have not been any further instances of wage theft.

Ko claimed that wage theft had never happened at all at the store, noting that if this were not the case, their 40 to 50 employees would not have continued working there.

But Jelani Burrell, who attended the protest on behalf of “Right for 15,” an organization that fights to ensure all fast food and retail employees get a $15 an hour wage and access to a union, said Ham’s claims were far from accurate. The same problems have persisted with Good Nature Market’s new management, Burrell said. Tim Sullivan, a member of the carpenters union, agreed, adding that he thought the protesters were well behaved and that he did not see anyone engage in violence or intimidation.

“[The protesters] were exercising free speech and they are the face of our democracy,” he said.

According to James Hillhouse High School freshman Lupita Tecpa, Good Nature Market was not the only business confronted for its wage practices during the march.

Before the incident at Good Nature Market, protesters assembled outside Thai Taste, chanting “we don’t got to take no more,” regarding the treatment of workers at that restaurant. Several cars with bullhorns, playing loud music and pulling along a large inflatable rat buttressed the chanting.

Tecpa, whose mother was left with back problems after physical abuse from her employer, said that both physical and financial abuse occurs in some New Haven establishments, with women being especially vulnerable to these forms of injustice.

Tecpa said that physical abuse also happens at Thai Taste, with men and sometimes children also finding themselves the target of such behavior. Three employees working at Thai Taste told the News that they did not know that a protest was going on.

Housekeeper Nereida Torres, who was collecting donations for her union, explained that she was protesting for immigrant rights and for a fair wage for housekeepers such as herself. She added that tips were largely insufficient for domestic workers to survive on. Alberto Menendez, an attendee of the protest who has lived in New Haven for 10 years, agreed with Torres’ sentiments, explaining that such injustices are also common among factory workers.

Lauren Weston ’16, who attended the protest on behalf of Yale’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said 84 Yale students marked themselves as “attending” on a Facebook event for the protest. Though attendees were also demonstrating against labor and immigration injustices, many attendees came in solidarity with the family of 25 year old Freddie Gray, an African-American man who suffered a fatal injury while in the custody of Baltimore police. 

“Today, [Gray’s death] was ruled as manslaughter, so we are recognizing that black lives matter too.” Weston said. 

Nailah Harper-Malveaux ’16, who had been at the demonstration with Weston since 4:30 p.m. when the crowd first gathered to make speeches, said she was impressed with the ultimate unity of the protesters. At the start, however, there seemed to be friction between groups. 

“We could hear it in the chants,” Weston said. She explained that earlier on in the protest, different chants would be occurring at the same time, since the organizations present had such differing agendas.

But, Harper-Malveaux said that as the day’s protest progressed, the differences of the 15 organizations subsided. 

Johnson also said the behavior of the protesters was united and commendable. New Haven is a city with frequent protests, she said. Demonstrations are not difficult for police officers to cover since they are so used to dealing with them, she added.

Upon hearing this, Sullivan scoffed.

“This was one of our smaller protests,” he said. “When we get mad at Yale, wait till you see what we do.”

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