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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  • Beavis

    Nabeguy: That’s not the Enrico Palazio that’s partial owner of Key Food on Montague Street. The Key Food Enrico looks totally different.

  • Teddy

    TJ is fine, but there’s too many people on the weekend and they don’t have everything. We need another option to open in the neighborhood. Maybe Whole Foods or Fairway (RH is too far away) could open a store here. That would take care of both Key Food stores for sure.

  • neighbor

    I agree that attempting to boycott the store as a tiny group won’t make a difference — unless we all tell the owners we are doing it and why… Here’s an email address I found for Enrico Palazio: I wrote him saying I wouldn’t shop at Key till M was reinstated at his job. I’m also taking a letter with the same info to Key. Until this gets more press, I forwarded the link to this article to all the people in the neighborhood whose emails I had. If we all write to the owners maybe it’ll sink into their heads that they can’t bully around a respected member of our community!

  • anon

    I am not here defending the owners behavior. However, I wish to say that I find the cashiers and store workers to be very friendly and upbeat when I shop in the morning or early afternoon (hardly go at other times). I find the self-entitleds who now live in the Heights for about the last decade to be extremely rude, pushy, nasty and look down their noses at the help at Key Food. Just wondering why the so called well educated and well to do’s have no class?

  • Martin Schneider

    Mohammed has always (15 years!) been the only dependably friendly and normal human person at Key. The check-out people, with rare exceptions, seem to make it a point to not make eye contact, as if they were trained to. Never a smile or a pleasant expression of any kind. (Except that they’ll be chatting up a storm with their colleagues.) But then the bosses and their workers all team up to make this the most unpleasant place for shopping. I avoid it as best I can and limit myself to only occasional basics, period. Fairway, ten minutes away, and Sahadi are my regular alternates now.

  • only the deturmined win

    Mohammad is the kind of guy that make a community feel like home, instead of just a bunch of strangers. I have too many stories of his generousity of spirit and “pay it forward” attitude to mention here. What I can say is that if you’re REALLY interested in helping him, an organized “strike”, complete with mom’s and their kids, (those kids that he’s been friendly with especially) holding signs would be quite a tasty sight for NY1 and the other locals. If you organize a date and time, put flyers up with an organizing contact person and phone #, arrange to have 30 or more people, call NYPD local precinct and the news ahead of time to let them know it’s happening, you’ll get the word out and make an impression.

    Anyone who claims to “own the union” probably needs to be taught a lesson in humility.

  • anon

    The check-outs are concentrating on all the codes they need to put into the cash registers to make sure they correctly compute the thousands of items sold in the store for your benefit. They are not there for your pleasure and self-entitlement. And if they act plastic, maybe it’s a reflection of the plastic mentality of debit/credit cards cutomers as they space out with an mp3 stuck in their ears taking no responsiblity to make any human contact (with anyone). Glad I will be seeing less of your ego there.

  • Ed

    What exactly do critics of the checkout people (mostly ladies) expect? They have a job to do, and mostly they do it well; some have more personality than others, but i’m not sure what you’re expecting from someone who is standing on their feet for hours on end (many after working a shift elsewhere) for $9 or $10 an hour. I’ll mention this: There is one lady who I always tried to avoid because I thought she was a real downer. One time I decided to speak with her — I started the conversation; I discovered that she was working a full day elsewhere before coming to key food for the evening shift, and doing it 6 days a week — she was physically exhausted. Ever since that conversation, I always have a nice word for her, and she for me. And sometimes she smiles a little bit. WE’RE DEALING WITH HUMAN BEINGS HERE, PEOPLE. Of the whole crew, though, Mohammad is absolutely the best — a real prize of an employee that I bet enrico will end up missing as much as the community.

  • Sue O’D

    I would believe the Dalai Lama lied & committed sexual harassment before I would believe that of Mohammed. He is the soul of honesty and decency. I have written to Enrico Palazio as suggested and would certainly be willing to participate in a demonstration or to take any other action to support justice for him.

    Regarding the cashiers–I think it’s miraculous that they can manage to be civil at all given the conditions they apparently work under. The fact that a number of Key Food cashiers are pleasant and helpful speaks a great deal for the resilience of the human spirit.

  • Mike

    Perhaps we should get the Dali Lama to price the items in the store correctly. That would be truly miraculous!

  • anomyous

    I will not give my name for fear of my job but our employer tries to stricking fear but I am not one easilly entimated and I will be behind all of my fellow employees even if they don’t want to speak up and yes enrich has a friendly relationship with our union and we all feel the stress of a lack of help mamhumad keep fighting cause our voicess will be heard

  • http://BrooklynHeightsBlog Bonnie Burke

    Thank you “anonymous” for expressing how things are from the inside. I know you speak the truth.

    I said Ana worked 9 years, but it was 12 years — at $9 something an hour. She worked another job, but was always good humored and did a bang-up job!

    Mohammed just told me the store just filed a grievance against him for signing in once this week 10 minutes too early!

    Never mind, the forces are forming and we shall overcome!!

  • anon
  • soccermom

    Please, I urge everyone who wishes to support Mohammed to write letters to the Owners. They need to know how much he means to the neighborhood, and their (ex) customers. I think a boycott can be effective: spread the word.

  • mary

    I am not suprised The low life’s who own the franchise cannot understand the “treasure” they had with Mohammud He is totally too classy for that place!!!!
    Shame on them!!!

  • Zachary Robinson

    My parents have been shopping at this Key Food for as long as I can remember. Muhammad has also been a great friend of the family for as long as I can remember. I even play soccer with him on some thursdays and saturdays at Cadman Plaza. It’s a shame that he’s not even getting a raise because he is always helpful and accomidating. I know it doesnt mean much but I will see If there are jobs at Trader Joe’s or the Atlantic Ave Key Food for him.

  • Ed

    Boycott talk is easy — and cheap. Residents of the central Heights have few alternatives. Those close enough can certain go the recently much-improved Key Food on Atlantic. And in the North Heights, the new Gristedes should be a big improvement over the poorly designed store that burned down.

  • paul

    mohammed is a prince. after all these years to be demoted to a stockboy on the graveyard shift! i have investigated mohammed’s case, and i know that what he claims is true. i for one will support mohammed and the other workers at key food in any way i can. how about a one-day boycott once every week or so as a way to inform the neighborhood about the conditions md and the other workers face? i for one-ever since i have become aware of md’s plight-have been shopping at trader joe’s, atlantic key food, that great fruit and veggie store next to sahadi’s, sahadi’s and the garden of eden. key food gets about 200 dollars less of my money per month since i’ve been informed about what’s going on there. organizers–unite us in taking some community action.

  • matt

    i don’t know who “anon” is, but you obviously have not shopped there at night! those cashiers are most nasty, angry, and impolite people i have come across. they work in a service industry. it is their job to be “pleasurable”, not self-entitled themselves. btw, one needs minimal concentration to “scan” items. as for credit / debit cards, let me guess, you are one of those folks online who still pull out the check book to write a check for $8.72 while the rest of us hard-working exhausted “entitleds” just wanna get home after a 12 hr. workday. that store sucks…..let’s run it the hell out of our neighborhood! FRESH DIRECT, people, FRESH DIRECT!!

  • http://BrooklynHeightsBlog Bonnie Burke

    Comment from Bonnie Burke
    Time: November 12, 2008, 10:44 pm

    Re: Key Food Labor Dispute
    Events are proceeding apace. Thanks to Diane of the Brooklyn Bugle for posting her article with more to come. Harrassment continues and some interesting facts in Mohammed’s favor are coming to light.

    We are laying low right now so as not to make the workers’ life more stressful (if possible), but should anything happen to Mohammed, for instance, I have every faith that the Brooklyn Heights community will be there in an instant like the revolutionary minutemen from our history to do whatever has to be done.

    John, thanks for the offer you posted a week or so ago. Please contact me: so I can put you in touch with the right people.

    Write a comment

  • gen

    I have no problem with the staff, they are always courteous and nice. If this is the way that the owner is going to treat the workers then I will shop elsewhere. thanks for the article.

  • ann

    What is happening with this situation? I no longer shop at Key Food (Montague St) because of management’s terrible treatment of Mohammed D. I
    Is the City’s labor relations board following up? I’ve written to them and have received a case number but no info.

  • No One Of Consequence

    “like the revolutionary minutemen from our history to do whatever has to be done”

    Like flee across the East River under cover of fog to Manhattan?

  • http://deleted paul

    let’s hope the nytimes article comes out this sunday.

    btw, let’s start some comparison shopping:
    at key food, the package of butter lettuce is 3.99
    at trader joe’s, it is 1.99!
    that fancy package of chicken sausage at key is 6.99 or 7.99
    at trader joe’s, it’s 3.99

    a quart of oganic plain yogurt at trader joe’s is only 2.99.
    i’ll get some more comparisons next time.

    i also shop at the atlantic avenue key food. it’s cheerful, clean and the extra couple of blocks walk saves me time on the treadmill at the gym. the cashiers are happy and friendly, which i believe happens when people are treated well. the cashiers have mentioned that a rather large number of people have commented on how prior montague street key food are now shopping on atlantic avenue. that’s good to hear.

    the way key is treating md and the other workers is illegal and morally reprehensible. we, as fellow human beings, should take a stand. we have the leverage because we can choose to withold buisiness until fairness and decency prevail.

  • Pedro Arauz

    Please be kind to Enrico for you don’t know the pain he is in and we must show compassion.

  • Stan

    Care to be more detailed?

  • Pedro Arauz

    Well, he’s probably in denial and comes from a difficult situation?
    What if he is dysfunctional and has a dysfunctional marriage?
    In other words, he is not doing what he is doing “on purpose” remember: forgive them father for they know not what they are doing?

  • http://deleted paul

    regarding enrico and his dysfunctional whatever: his own personal pain does not obviate the fact that he is causing pain to many others. i can sympathize with his personal plights, but i can also call on him to see this situation – at his business – as an opportunity to undo the damage he is causing to others; and in the process, he can transform his own life.

  • Pedro Arauz

    I agree with you Paul, it is not justified to bring others into pain beacause of your own pain. He’s probably constantly projecting his pain. Remember how the Wise described the evil World, not because the World is evil but because it awakens the evil within. You should try to talk to your local Priest or Rabbi for Him to go talk to Enrico and his wife. Usually people like to live in a friendly environment and having a positive and candid relatioship with your fellow men. If Enrico is Catholic then maybe the local Priest should Exorcise him, a well accepted practice among Catholics!

  • Taina

    When I first started working for this KeyFood about 2 years ago I thought I could make this into a career. I met Enrico and he interviewed me and I got the job. M hours were short the pay was horrible and so was the whole Enrico family. They should have a better union and as far as mohamad goes he is the most respectable person you could ever meet. He is also a hard worker and for them to accuse him of these false accusations this is something to expect from the Enrico family cause they are cheap and don’t know how to treat their employees the right way. I hope no one else has to suffer under their supervision.