The Key Food on Montague Street gives the appearance of a friendly neighborhood grocery store, a place that you can’t imagine to be “worse than a sweatshop.” But Mamodou “Mohammed” Doucoure, who has worked for Key Food for more than 15 years, said they “bring about fear in their employees.”
“Open your mouth and you leave”; that’s the message Doucoure said the owners are sending their employees for asking for the compensation they deserve.
For a store that allegedly has spent the last 10 years actively denying workers fair payment and using intimidation, harassment and corruption to deny workers their legal rights, the union is not much help either.
Last week, Doucoure was demoted from his position as “assistant manager” to overnight stock boy because store owners accused him of “sexual harassment”—a claim which was denied by store customers who witnessed the incident in question, and which lacks any evidence. Doucoure said he was accused of harassment in retaliation for speaking up against years of being denied his basic rights as a worker. These rights include failure to receive overtime pay, and fighting against falsified claims of his length of employment. Doucoure also lost a seven year pension that was legally owed to him. The store owners, Enrico Palazio and Ivan Arguello, effectively blocked fair union representation of employees from entering into the store, thus denying Doucoure and other workers from receiving their benefits. Both owners refused to comment on the matter.
When Doucoure was demoted, he called in representatives from The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 to meet with Arguello and Palazio in his defense. At this meeting, Arguello accused Doucoure of sexually harassing co-owner Enrico Palazio’s wife. Doucoure said there are security cameras all over the store and demanded video evidence, but Palazio did not provide evidence. Doucoure also inquired as to why the police were not called. Due to such questionable circumstances, the union has not made any further moves to defend his rights, thus continuing down the path that Arguello and Palazio had been fighting for years—that of workers being denied union representation at a time when it is most crucial for them.
Key Food on Montague Street hired Doucoure in 1992, but the company allegedly falsely submitted information to Local 1500 that he was not hired until 1996. Although he had worked for the company for years with an understanding of being fairly represented by the union, he was not allowed to join the union until 1997, “at least six months from his date of hire.” Because Key Food and Local 1500 refused to acknowledge his actual date of hire, Mohammed’s rights as a long-time worker at the company were refused. As a result, he has “continuously lost wages, fringe benefits, seniority, pension rights and other rights.”
In January 2007, Doucoure twice requested that the union take his case to arbitration. By September, the union had not responded to his requests, thus he filed a complaint against the Local 1500 and Key Food.
In November 2007, Local 1500 responded to this complaint, alleging that Doucoure told them he did not pay dues to the union until 1997 because Key Food “convinced him it would not be in his interest to do so.” The union claimed that he was working as a part-time security guard—a job category that the union does not represent—until 1995, but according to the union’s investigation, Key Food “concealed” that fact until 1997. As a result, the union claims to have requested that Doucoure’s records be adjusted so that he would receive pension from 1995, and the union claims to have informed him of this in 2006. However, neither of these two things happened, and Doucoure has since been demoted. Doucoure said this is because Palazio “owns the union.”
“Palazio made that clear to everyone (who works at Key Food),” Doucoure said, adding that the message Palazio had continuously sent employees was “If you call the union, I own the union and you will pay the price.” Additionally, Palazio told Doucoure that he would agree to a settlement if Doucoure agreed to leave the store. Union representatives were unavailable to comment on the matter.
Doucoure is not alone in being denied his legal rights to benefits and union representation. According to area waitress and long-time friend of Key Food workers Bonnie Burke, several other employees at the store who had spent years trying to join the union had also been intimidated, harassed and denied pension. When they finally succeeded in joining, Burke said, the owners sent the union false information about the length of employment, which shortened their pension. One worker of nine years, Ana, had lost three years of her pension and eventually was forced to quit the job because of the continued harassment and intimidation she had received. Suddenly Ana’s schedule was changed, she was given hours that she could not work, and eventually decided to quit. Another employee named Gloria had spent more than a decade working for the company, and lost her pension upon retirement from the store. Burke said management continues to harass workers in order to “push them out” of the store. As a friend of many of the workers, she said, “I care about these people and I can’t just sit by and let this happen to them,” adding that she is very heartened by the “outpouring of community support.”
“If there’s anything the (Key Food workers) need done, we will do it,” Burke added.
Doucoure said that the owners are consciously trying manipulate employees into quitting in what he called a “backdoor push-out”—describing that owners are trying to conceal the corruption and repress his voice by literally pushing him out of the back-door in the middle of the night, where his voice will not be heard. He said that Rico is trying to bring about fear in his co-workers.
“It’s important that we come out of hiding from fear and stand up for our rights,” he added.