Madelaine Chocolate Locks Out 500 Employees
By Howard Schwach
In a move that stunned 175 workers coming back from their lunch hour break on Monday, Madelaine Chocolate, one of Rockaway's largest employers, locked out its workers and closed down production after workers rejected what management called "a final offer" for a new contract.
Workers returning from lunch were handed a notice by newly-hired security guards who were already on duty.
"Your company has bargained in good faith with your union to achieve a fair and equitable labor contract," the notice, printed in English, Spanish and French, began. "We and your union bargaining committee were satisfied that we reached a fair contract settlement on April 29. Unfortunately, this settlement was presented to you, the employees of Madelaine and you rejected it. As a result, we have no alternative but to lock out our employees without pay effective immediately."
The notice ordered everyone to leave the building at once.
"No delays or disruptions of any kind will be tolerated," the notice said. "Security personnel or your supervisors will escort you from the premises. Follow their direction and leave at once. Proceed in an orderly fashion to the locker room area, empty your locker, turn in your smock and leave the premises as quickly as possible. Do not punch out. Any wages owed to you will be mailed to your last known address.
One of the workers milling around Beach Channel Drive at Beach 99 Street, who asked to be identified only as John, said that he was shocked by the company's move.
"Most of these people have been with the company for twenty or thirty years," he said. "It's not right to put them out on the street over a few bucks."
John, who has been working for the company for less than a year, said that this was the "slow time" in the production of chocolate and that workers were traditionally laid off between the Easter and Christmas periods.
He said that the job at Madelaine was his "morning job" and that he could make up the money somewhere, but that many of the workers, the majority of whom speak little or no English, would have a hard time finding other ways to make a living.
John told The Wave that the typical employee who works on the candy line earns less than nine dollars an hour, even after 20 or 30 years with the company.
Avi Borenstein, an attorney for Madelaine Chocolate Novelties, said in a prepared statement released to The Wave, however, "This irresponsible rejection by the employees of an agreement negotiated fairly and firmly by Madelaine and local 1222 leaves Madelaine with no alternative but to take steps to secure the safety and well being of its employees and its sophisticated equipment by shutting down production operations pending employee acceptance of the contract terms already negotiated with Madelaine's management and Local 1222."
John says that the idea that the employees would do anything to harm the factory's machinery is ridiculous.
"These people have been here for a long time," he said. "They care more for the company than the owners."
Jim Gangale, a Business Manager for UPSEU, Local 122, which is affiliated with the United Professional and Service Employees Union, agrees with John.
"Most of the workers are immigrants with deep roots in the company," he told The Wave. "The company made a 'last offer" and they rejected it. Now, they are locked out. They don't appreciate what the workers have done for them."
Gangale said that the union had filed an unfair labor practice grievance with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but that the workers would be at the plant every day to show that they wanted their jobs back.
"This is not a strike, they want to go to work," he said, referring to the employees outside the plant. "They have been locked out by the owners."
A NLRB spokesperson said that lockouts are legal only to protect the company against economic injury and or to protect themselves at the bargaining table.
Labor experts say that the law gives the company wide latitude to protect its equipment from sabotage as well as its bargaining rights.
Madelaine Chocolate Novelties has more than 500 employees, running three eight-hour shifts each day, manufacturing chocolate under its own name as well as for several national brands.
According to Candy Industry Magazine, a trade publication, which ran a front page story on the company in its June, 2004 issue, Madelaine Chocolates was estimated having $45 million in sales, making 20 million pounds of chocolate each year in its Rockaway Beach plant.