D'Arrigo, Hunts Point, Sued: Alleged Race-based Price Fixing, Off The Books Wages, Race Bias

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Willie Mitchell claims he wasn't fired for urinating in public; claims he was trying to expose price fixing, and employment and race discrimination. Photo: Nate Adams

Willie J. Mitchell worked for 30 years at Hunts Point Cooperative Markets as a "lumper," loading and off-loading trucks and unpacking boxes and later as a warehouse employee, before he was fired by D'Arrigo Brothers one of the major produce suppliers allegedly for urinating in public and other infractions.

But in a $35 million lawsuit in federal court here in New York, Mitchell, an African American, says the real reason for his termination is because he'd been complaining to management as well as to his union, Local 202 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, about the exploitation of thousands of Black and Latino laborers who were paid off the books for decades, racial discrimination by employers including, D'Arrigo Bros., and discriminatory pricing with food sellers charging customers according to their race.

African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans cutomers were charged the highest rates -- as much one-third more than the lowest rates for the same produce, Mitchell alleges in the lawsuit.

After Jewish buyers, who are charged the lowest, the next lowest rate the wholesalers charged for the produce --including fruits and vegetables-- was to non-Jewish White shoppers. Asian customers paid higher than Whites; Turks paid more than Asians; finally, Blacks and Latinos had to dig the deepest in their pockets, according to the lawsuit.

What's more, Blacks and Latinos were often sold spoiled produce intentionally, Mitchell alleges.

When irate customers returned to protest about the spoiled foods, D'Arrigo had Black employees like Mitchell, handle the complaints.
 Black and Latino buyers who became familiar with the discriminatory pricing often contracted Jewish vendors to purchase produce on their behalf from D'Arrigo Bros., Mitchell alleges in the lawsuit against his former employer. The defendants' actions created "a racially hostile environment by artificially driving up the produce prices for minority customers" according to the lawsuit.

Other defendants in the lawsuit are executives at Hunts Point, and Mitchell's own union.

Mitchell claims the defendants conspired to condone and conceal the discriminatory practices, which continued even after they became aware of them. Mitchell filed the lawsuit in November in U.S. federal court in the Southern District of New York.

Hunts Point Cooperative Market pulls in about $2 billion in annual revenue.

"This is the classic racketeering case," says Eric Sanders, a Manhattan-based attorney who is representing Mitchell. "There is no such thing as a shadow labor market in New York. There is no such thing as off-the-book employment."

Sanders claims the defendants used the scheme to maximize their profits and says he's been contacted by five other Hunts Point employees with experiences similar to Mitchell's. "We have labor law violations. We have pension law violations. We have price fixing," Sanders adds.

When contacted about the lawsuit and Mitchell's allegations, D’Arrigo Brothers through a company spokesperson says, “As this matter is in litigation, we will not comment on it other than to say we look forward to presenting our position in court.”

Nick Rodelli, General Manager and Director of Public Safety at Hunts Point Cooperative Markets didn't respond to a message left with an assistant and via voice mail seeking comment. The assistant when reached for a second time by phone said The Black Star News' inquiry had been forwarded to the appropriate person to respond. "They may or may not call you back," she says.

Another alleged scheme at Hunts Point involves parking space. Customers pay about $10 to drive into the 60 acres facility. Yet, once inside the food wholesalers charge their own parking separate fee for customers to park in front of their outlets. The wholesalers also demand that customers make 80% of their purchases in the store in front of where they park their vehicles, Sanders says, adding that one customer who tried to sneak in from behind was viciously beaten. "This is straight up racketeering. New York cleaned up the Fulton Fish Market; it's time to do the same in Hunts Point," he says.

Mitchell first started working at Hunts Point in 1980 off-loading trucks and rail cars.

In the lawsuit, he alleges that he and other Black and Latino employees endured a hostile work environment with racist comments directed at them while being paid off-the- books to conceal their underpayment and their lack of benefits and pension rights.

The off-the-book workers were given vouchers which were then redeemed for cash. They weren't allowed to keep copies of the vouchers, Mitchell alleges.

On the other hand, White workers were hired on staff and enjoyed all the benefits of full-time employees, Mitchell's lawsuit contends.

For his first eight years, Mitchell alleges, he worked for various companies that were members of Hunts Point Cooperative market until 1988, when he started working  exclusively for D'Arrigo, still off-the-books.

It was not until 1997 that D'Arrigo added Mitchell on payroll. Now, with access to what he believed was protection from his union, Local 202 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Mitchell started detailing the exploitation of Black and Latino workers to union officials, he alleges.

Mitchell claims in the lawsuit that Black and Latino workers endured racist comments at the workplace. When African American workers were seen together some managers would make remarks like "this isn't 125th Street," a reference to one of the main streets in Harlem, and some managers referred to Mexican workers as "wetbacks," Mitchell alleges.

Black laborers who were lucky enough to get hired were also subjected to a "Black code" and written up on fictitious infractions and eventually dismissed, the lawsuit contends.

Having been marked for termination, on one occasion, Mitchell claims in his lawsuit, after he spent some time trying to placate a Dominican client who came to D'Arrigo and complained that he had been sold spoiled produce, he was accused by his employer of "stealing" company time.

In a grievance hearing three weeks later, his own union sided with D'Arrigo. Even though the union said no company rules had been violated, Leonardo Servedio, a trustee of Local 202, suggested that Mitchell agree that the three weeks without pay be considered "time served," the ex-employee alleges.

Servedio, the Local 202 trustee, couldn't be reached for comment by phone. He didn't respond to detailed questions about Mitchell's allegations submitted via the e-mail address listed for contacting Local 202.

Mitchell says, fearing termination, he reluctantly agreed and also signed a "last chance" letter, meaning a future infraction would lead to termination; even though he had not committed one. His complaints about discrimination at the work place were never addressed, he alleges.

The following year, on June 11, 2015, Mitchell alleges in his lawsuit, he was falsely arrested by a Lt. White of the New York City Business Integrity Commission, which handles security at Hunts Point, for allegedly urinating in public and issued a criminal court summons.

What's more, Mitchell claims he was once again accused of "stealing time," by D'Arrigo, on July 30, 2015, when he stopped for less than three minutes to place some fruit in his car.  D'Arrigo ordered Mitchell to leave Hunts Point and on August 22 sent him a certified letter of termination.

Separately, on October 1, 2015, a Judicial Hearing Officer, Richard O. Tolchin, of criminal court, Bronx, acquitted Mitchell on the public urination charges and found the police's witness "incredible," Mitchell says. Mitchell wasn't offered his job back after he was acquitted.

After he was denied unemployment benefits, on November 4, 2015, Administrative Law Judge Viren Pergadia, in Bronx County, ruled that Mitchell had been terminated for "non-disqualifying reasons" and overruled the denial.

On November 19, Mitchell filed his law suit, alleging civil rights violation; mental anguish; and loss of employment and pension benefits.

D'Arrigo brothers previously was sued by another ex-employee, Darren Smith, in federal court in 2012. Smith alleged a hostile work environment where African American males were made to work longer hours and also subjected to racist comments by White supervisors.

Some of the alleged comments included: "how many Black people does it take to pave a road?" with the response "depends on how heavy the roller is";  "why did God make aspirins white?" with the response "because they work"; and, "what did God say when he saw the first Black man?" with the response "Oops, I burnt one."

Sanders, who also represented Smith in the case which was eventually settled, declined to comment or to provide details.

 

Editor's Note: If you've had a similar experience at your place of employment please contact mallimadi@gmail.com

 

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