By Evelyn Nuñez (SY '15)
The week before students arrived back on campus, four workers were terminated from employment at Gourmet Heaven in retaliation for cooperating with the Department of Labor. These firings are the latest development in a case of wage and hour violations opened by the Department of Labor against Chung Cho — owner of Gourmet Heaven — in July. Over the past several months, weekly protests have been organized to appeal to Cho to end labor violations now.
If you had told me freshman year that I would be leading a protest with a megaphone every week for a semester, I would have probably never believed you. My personality is more reserved, and I didn’t think that public demonstrations were the place for me. I freeze up when I have to speak in front of large groups. To a certain extent, I still do.
But due in large part to my stint as Community Action Chair for MEChA, a social justice group on campus that largely focuses on issues affecting the Latino community, my willingness to speak out publicly has evolved over the past year. I spent hours listening to the stories of individuals who became victims of a broken economic and political system — a system that, for one reason or another, frequently does not provide equal treatment for all. Specifically, during the last several months, I’ve spent week after week listening to the stories of individuals within our community who have found themselves powerless in the face of abusive employer treatment.
Many students have already heard the stories of these community members, the workers of Gourmet Heaven. Many students have also watched as these workers prepared sandwiches for them during their late night food runs or replenished the food bar for the post-Toads rush. At all hours of the day and night, customers can find someone ready to fill their grumbling stomachs. Unsurprisingly, Gourmet Heaven workers expect their labor to be adequately compensated. However, Cho has for years cheated his workers out of their hard-earned wages.
The recent events have demonstrated to me the urgent need for student solidarity and continued pressure. We all have come to a point in our lives when we must recognize our individual social responsibility and understand the implications of our everyday choices. Boycotting Gourmet Heaven sends an active message that consumers will not support a business that does not treat its workers with dignity and respect. A dwindling customer base will send a message that Cho cannot afford to ignore.
In particular, Yale students, as the largest customer base of Gourmet Heaven, can vote with their dollars to change the outcome of the current situation. Additionally, University Properties, as the landlord, has the capacity to take strict actions against the continued labor violations. Exploitation does not have to be the reality of workplaces in New Haven, and our individual actions can be a much-needed agent for change.
Moreover, our involvement in this campaign is part of a larger movement for worker justice. Our conscious choice today to stand in solidarity with Gourmet Heaven workers empowers other workers to advocate for their rights. Wage theft is a national epidemic. Low-wage workers nationwide are struggling to earn a living wage. Currently, many workers, like those employed by Gourmet Heaven, are paid wages that force them below the poverty line. A collective demand for a livable wage has the potential to change the economic disparity that has become all too ingrained in our society. The benefit this country receives from the labor of low-wage workers does not have to come at the price of the lives of those laborers. We have the ability — no, the responsibility — to speak out against this practice and work towards fair wages and worker justice.
This boycott is one way for us to speak out for what is right. Another way to raise our voices is by participating in the weekly picket line. I know that to some who walk along Broadway on Friday evenings, these protests may seem irritating or excessive, but I ask you to take a moment to understand the importance of these protests within the larger picture. I ask you to view these weekly protests not as an inconvenience but as the manifestation of a community’s agency. It reflects our power to speak out against injustice, and it also empowers workers to advocate for their rights. In light of the recent firings, it is necessary that we continue this weekly show of solidarity and unity.
In emails that I send to MEChA, I typically sign off with “La lucha sigue” — in English, “the fight continues.” And the fight on Broadway will continue, and it’s a fight we should face together.