Wage protest targets Subway’s Milford HQ
MILFORD — About a dozen union members rallied in front of Subway World Headquarters Thursday morning, chanting slogans and distributing leaflets to commuters.
The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ claims workers in the Subway franchises in the Interstate-95 service plazas do not receive the mandatory Connecticut Standard Wage. The Standard Wage is set by the Department of Labor and requires state contractors, such as service plaza vendors, to pay what the state calls a prevailing wage. It varies by job and location, but a typical fast food worker should earn an hourly rate about $3 above minimum wage, according to the state Department of Labor website.
“In the middle of a pandemic, frontline service plaza workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep us safe and fed,” read a leaflet the protesters handed out to drivers. “They shouldn’t have to put up with wage theft.”
An email requesting comment from Subway was not returned on Thursday. A call to Project Services LLC, the company that operates the concessions at the state service plazas, diverted into a full voice mailbox and then disconnected.
Alberto Bernardez, one of the leaders of the small group outside Subway, said the wage practices showed a disrespect for the workers, who are mostly Black and Hispanic, he said.
“They’re entitled to the Standard Wage, but they aren’t receiving it,” he said.
Union spokesman Eliza Bates said the demonstration was an attempt to inform the public about what she called wage theft and racial injustice.
“Subway has said it supports Black Lives Matter, but the company is letting franchise owners steal wages from a majority Black and Latinx workforce during a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting workers of color,” she said.
The union has held similar demonstrations at highway service plazas in Darien and Milford. A previous rally at Subway World Headquarters this month that included some franchise employees resulted in the company calling the police on the group, according to SEIU organizer Neil Diaz.
“Every one of us was standing on the sidewalk, but they called the police,” Diaz said. “So this time, they (the restaurant workers) decided not to come because they were told they would get arrested if they came back. But we’re here. We came back.”
In response, the Local 32BJ filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Subway had harassed workers engaged in lawful union activity. The union also sent a letter to Milford police reminding them of workers’ First Amendment rights.
The letter states that on Nov. 4 a small group of union members and restaurant employees were distributing flyers on the sidewalk at the driveway entrance leading to the company’s building. After about a half-hour, three Milford police officers showed up, according to the union’s legal counsel Jessica Drangel Ochs.
“The officers informed the union leaf letters that they must leave because they were on private property and that they would be arrested if they returned,” Ochs wrote. “The police informed the leaf letters that they were being warned and further intimidated them by insisting that each participant provide their name, date of birth, and identification.”
Ochs pointed out that the sidewalk and driveway entrance were public property or at least subject to public easement.
“The Supreme Court has explained that sidewalks are a quintessential public forum regardless of where title rests,” Ochs wrote. “The police have an obligation to protect members of the public when they exercise First Amendment rights, not hinder them.”
Milford Police Chief Keith Mello said the department received the letter, and confirmed that three officers had been dispatched to the scene around 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 4. for a trespassing complaint. Police left the scene 30 minutes later having advised the protesters to stay off Subway property, Mello said.
Mello said the officers, who had their body cameras activated for the duration of the call, told the protesters they could be subject to arrest “if you go on their property” and that the officers explained the distinction between Subway property and the sidewalk.
The officers collected names and dates of birth from the protesters so they would have a reference of who had received verbal warnings, he said.
“Officers also clearly explained that the protesters were not being accused of doing anything wrong and reiterated their explanations and that the warning applied to potential future conduct,” he said.
The SEIU has been attempting to organize food service workers at the rest stops for the past few years and has filed several complaints on behalf of the workers.
In October, federal labor officials sided with a group of service plaza McDonald’s workers who claimed they were fired for union organizing. In September, state Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby, a former SEIU union head, awarded 264 current and former employees at rest stop McDonald’s more than $870,000 in back pay after a year-long inquiry into wage practices at the service plazas in Darien and Fairfield.
“Now, it’s time for Subway and other franchise owners to pay up, too,” Bates said.