Fighting for Workers’ Rights at Montague Street Key Food

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.

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  • Alex

    Thanks for this. What can we do?

  • GHB

    What a %$&*ing disgrace! If Gristede’s were smart, they would grab Mohammed, and fast. Personally, I have no problem boycotting the store. Anyone else on board?

  • MadeInBrooklyn

    I am so glad Trader Joe’s opened… I was already at a point where I didn’t want to give a dime to that crappy, over-priced store and this just seals the deal.

  • Amy

    The owners’ behavior is completely disgusting–to begin with, there should be a neighborhood-wide boycott of this store. (Which doesn’t leave many shopping choices unfortunately) After that, someone else may have some suggestions.

  • MadeInBrooklyn

    With you GHB: a boycott it is.

  • Josh

    Great reporting – thanks! I hope some media outlets pick this up

    I agree a boycott is in order and will not shop there starting today no matter what the inconvenience is

    I have tried to talk to one of the owners, Ivan and he respectfully declines. I think a boycott is the most effective way to get the owner’s to hear our voices

    I only hope that Mohammad and the other employees can weather the storm and get needed changes agreed upon

  • GHB

    Does anybody know if these clowns also own the Atlantic Avenue Key Foods?

  • Brooklynborn

    No they don’t . . .so you we can all take our business there

  • AliG

    And P.S….most employees accused of sexual harrassment get canned, not demoted. I hate Key Food, this will be a boycott forever for my family.

  • Ed

    Mohammad is the best asset that store has. It would cost the owners a few bucks to do the right thing, but they should do it — it’s in their own interest to do so!

  • E G

    Atlantic Key Food is owned by a group of Italian gentlemen from Staten Island.

    I’ll always remember this one manager from Atlantic Key Food, sorry I do not recall his name. I complained that they were always out of Goya canned artichoke hearts. From that day forward there has always been such on the shelf. This guy was/is great. The others are complete schmucks!

    A lot of the girls at the register (with a notable exception of a few) seem like they are either just out of the penitentiary or on their way there.

  • Breukelen Born

    Everyone on this site is so quick to believe everything they read. While it appears there may be some mistreatment of employees worth investigation, many allegations don’t make sense. For example, store owners don’t “own” the unions – literally or figuratively. Just the opposite is true – especially in the grocery industry. The failure of the union to take the employee’s side makes me skeptical. Moreover, the tone is biased and throws around terms like “evidence” completely out of legal context. Don’t boycott until you get the facts, Brooklyn Heights. You are smarter than that.

  • Homer Fink

    We are continuing to work on this story. All sides have been contacted. We will have updates soon.

  • Bart

    Ever since Trader Joe’s opened, I’ve been buying all that can over there. Even though I found Key Food cleaner than the Gristedes, there are certain checkout people who think they’re doing you a favor by ringing up your groceries. Granted this was limited to about three checkout people and I knew to avoid them. But shopping at Trader Joe’s is such a pleasure. And the checkout people are from all over the globe. It’s great to know that being a checkout person is a global aspiration. And these people show their enthusiasm.

    Bart

  • Brooklynborn

    Breukelen Born (what an original name)-

    You have hit the nail on the head in your conclusion that the story does not make sense, but I disagree as to why the story does not make sense. Why after an employee brings claims against his employer does his employer demote him to stock and change his hours to the late night shift? And then justify it by pointing to a claim that he sexually harrassed the owners’ wife??? Why does the employer not provide its side of the story when so many people have questioned them on this matter??

    This isn’t a court of law, but a forum for public opinions and reporters shouldn’t have to restrict their use of words. We are all intelligent by the fact that we are informed and what could be smarter than that!

  • TK Small

    One of the first cases that I handled fresh out of law school was against the Key Food on Montague Street. My client was a person in a wheelchair and they were refusing to make any of their checkout aisles accessible. The matter was brought before the NYC Human Rights Commission and we won our case. Before I became involved with the matter, in a similar mindset they were harassing the individual that was simply seeking accessibility. It got to the point where they were following him around Montague Street trying to prove that he was not disabled. I only offer this as an example of the type of people Mohammed is up against.

  • bhmom

    I know I am preaching to the choir, but it is true that Mohammed is a gem. He has always made our kids feel special at the store, and I am sorry to hear about his predicament.

  • jim

    poor attitude from montague key food cash register attendants…i’ll stick with trader joe’s for positive, upbeat, friendly customer service !!!

  • John

    I am an employment attorney that represents individuals regarding lost wages. I would be happy to speak with these employees.

  • Mike

    The management of that store has been a mess for years now. I considered Mohammad part of management. I’m not surprised there are problems.

  • http://BrooklynHeightsBlog Bonnie Burke

    Thanks Diane for an excellent article. I have a degree in journalism and have published many articles and I was impressed by your mastery of a very complicated situation.

    T.K. Small: Thanks for the info on your disabled client and how these Key Food owners harrassed him when he wanted access.

    John, thanks for your offer. Please contact me: bonburke@joimail.com.

    I am pro union, but we all know not all unions are the same.

    Mohammed told me tonight he would not like to see a boycott because he would not like to see his friends and customers inconvenienced.

    I’ve been shopping at since 1974. I know the workers who are being victimized and they great people, excellent at their jobs, and a lot of fun. Ana, for instance, used to remind to swipe my card, tip me off to specials, make me laugh. We used to keep tabs on older folks who weren’t coming in. She knew exactly how to pack my bags, including which stuff was going to be dropped of a different location. She was really fast and accurate.

  • Janet

    I notice on the Key Food website http://www.keyfood.com/locationresults.aspx?location=Brooklyn
    that there seem to be several e-mail addresses for Key Food, each to contact several stores. Does anyone know if this is a good way to figure out which are under the same ownership? Does this mean, for example, that 369 Flatbush IS under the same ownership?

  • skunky

    janet
    pretty sure Key Food/Met Food/Associated are all franchises, and they don’t typically advertise who the franchisees are.

    If I can help it I never set food in the Atlantic Key Food, it is a horrid place, until recently smelling like garbage all the time.

    Trader Joe’s, Atlantic Fruit & Veg (Green Pea), Sahadi’s, Damascus, all within a block, why go to an overpriced shithole like Key Food (or Garden of Evil, for that matter)?

    Of course, this would mean crossing Atlantic Ave, and for some BHers that is like going to Bed-Stuy.

  • Jilly

    I was shocked to hear from Mohammed that he was getting ripped off by his employer/union and I certainly am in agreement with all your comments. Arnold Diaz would be a good person to contact. His segment on “Shame on You” might be a good beginning. I’m afraid that boycotting (from this small group ) won’t make a dent in this horrific situation. Collectively we CAN make a difference.

  • KC

    Mohammad is one of the most valuable assets the store has. He has been working hard there for some 15 years, and I am sure he is worth a lot more than he is getting. Without him the store would have no redeeming qualities.

  • promenade

    Mohommed is probably the ONLY reason I still shop at Key Food. He is always warm and welcoming, he knows all the neighborhood kids, and in the store, he is always always helpful and courteous – and has so much patience with the older customers!
    Ridiculous how they are treating him!

  • Sue

    But where is the Union in all of this mess? Why aren’t they defending Mohammed?? If they are being bought off, then the NLRB needs to be brought in to do an investigation of the entire situation.
    Mohammed is the only person in that store who knows what he’s doing and it is a crime to have him caught in the middle of corrupt store owners and equally corrupt union people

  • anon

    Long time customer: Mohammed is a gentleman. The owners are a bunch of lying sexist sleazeballs. Mohammed is so unthreatening, friendly, kind and helpful. The wife in question is unfriendly even though she has seen me around for years. Always got the vibe she knows her husband has the roving eye.

  • nabeguy

    Apparently, even the owners relatives enjoy a good fight. Scroll down on the link:

    http://www.militarychess.com/scullystrategic.asp

  • heightsman

    aren’t we all waiting for key food to die anyway. atlantic is OK. montague totally sucks. eveyone there is totally rude. why r u paying MORE for crap, when u could pay less at trader joes and actually have an enjoyable experience. its as if people feel that to be a nyer, u need a healthy dose of abuse each week. oh, and half their stock is expired.