MIDTOWN — On Tuesday, a coalition of rabbis, laborers and activists gathered outside an office building on Lexington Avenue between East 54th and East 53rd streets to protest the unethical labor practices of a 93-year-old kosher food company in Brooklyn.
Flaum Appetizing Corp has been embroiled in a workers' rights scandal for years, culminating in a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that the Brooklyn company skimped workers out of overtime pay and fired them when they complained about it.
Protesters gathered Tuesday in front of the Midtown offices of Apax Partners, a private equity firm that owns the largest food manufacturer and distributor in Israel, a kosher cheese company called Tnuva. Protesters said they want Apax to stop letting Flaum distribute Tnuva's cheese products until the company does right by its employees.
“We believe [the company's actions go] against Jewish values,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, the executive director of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox Jewish social justice organization that helped organize the protest. “There’s a company that hasn’t been paying their workers.”
About 50 protesters gathered in the midday 90-degree heat at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, holding a brief rally before trying to send a small delegation of rabbis and community members into the Apax Partners office to discuss the future of the company’s relationship with Flaum.
Daniel Gross, the executive director of Brandworkers International, a workers’ rights organization that helped organize the protest, said that more than 60 grocery store locations — including branches of Food Emporium, Fairway and Zabar’s — have stopped selling Flaum products because of the company’s labor treatment practices.
“It’s amazing that Tnuva is holding out,” Gross said.
Gross invited two disgruntled Flaum workers, each carrying protest signs, to share their tales of mistreatment through a Spanish interpreter.
"They never paid overtime," worker Maria Corona said through a translator, "And the manager, he basically fired us because we tried to defend ourself and we joined a union."
"Shame!" yelled those present.
Those workers went to the NLRB with claims that Flaum failed to pay overtime and fired 17 people when they complained about it. A NLRB judge has ordered Flaum to rehire the workers and pay them roughly $260,000 in back wages. But the company has refused to pay the workers, reportedly citing questions about the employees' immigration status.
The delegation waited to enter the building for about 10 minutes, with the crowd chanting incessantly behind them. But the rabbis and community members were never allowed to enter, because they said they were told that Apax Partners had closed its office from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. today.
A spokesman for Apax Partners declined to comment on the protest or the situation with Flaum.
Ari Hart, a co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek and a rabbinical student, said the group opted not to wait around for the Apax offices to reopen on Tuesday, out of concern for the workers' schedules.
“We want to respect the workers,” Hart said. “It was very clear that they were going to do everything they could not to meet with us.”
Gross said the fact that their protest may have prompted the company to close for an hour constituted a “major victory.”
He then led the group in one final chant, which the protesters shouted over and over in unison.
“We’ll be back and we’ll be stronger. We won’t take it any longer.”