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PHOTOS: We Spoke to the Bakers Behind NYC's 'Day Without Bread' Protest

Alex Swerdloff

The Department of Homeland Security audit that sparked the mass firing is supposed to be the first of its kind that New York has seen in a decade.

The image of a black-and-white cat sitting in repose over the words "Tom Cat Bakery" is a familiar sight to New Yorkers, who routinely see it on trucks delivering bread throughout the five boroughs and on the wrappers that enclose baguettes at local supermarkets.

All photos by author.

Today, the 30-year-old artisanal bakery became the focal point of the national conflict over immigration as dozens of workers protested in the early morning outside the bakery's factory in Long Island City, calling for a "Day Without Bread." Four supporters of the protesters—two men and two women—were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after chaining themselves to delivery trucks a few hours before the protest began.

The workers were calling for New Yorkers to forgo bread today in the hopes of drawing attention to a crackdown by the Department of Homeland Security on immigrant workers at the bakery. At the protest, workers advocates said that if the crackdown spreads to other local food businesses—as they expect it will—New York City's food industry will be ravaged.

The protest came amid an investigation and I-9 audit of Tom Cat Bakery conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. In an I-9 audit, a business is required to present proof to the government that its workers have the requisite documentation to work legally in the US. In mid-March, Tom Cat told its employees that the company was under investigation and that 31 of its approximately 180 employees needed to present documentation or face being fired today, April 21.

According to Daniel Gross, the founder and executive director of Brandworkers, a non-profit center dedicated to workers who manufacture local food, the audit that Tom Cat is undergoing is the first I-9 audit in New York City in over ten years. Gross told MUNCHIES that the crackdown was "a dramatic hit" and that it is indicative of immigration authorities who have become emboldened by the recent political climate. He said, "In the Trump era, as you know, these audits are coming with raids. They're coming with raids at home, they're coming with raids when you're picking your child up from school, and they're coming with raids at work. So the stakes are very high." 

The Trump administration has committed to hiring 15,000 additional immigration officers, and Sean Spicer has said the president wants to "take the shackles off" agents.

At the rally outside the Queens factory today, as a light rain fell and the sun came up, worker after worker stood up and spoke—most in Spanish—about their many years at the bakery. None who stood up had worked at Tom Cat for fewer than ten years. The fired workers vowed to continue fighting for a severance package that reflected their contributions to the company, and asserted the need for a rational immigration policy in the US. Henry Rivera, a Tom Cat employee of 11 years, told the crowd, "We're standing here today united and fighting not just for our rights, but for the rights of all workers. We're going to continue fighting until they listen to us." Another employee named Jose, who had been with the company for more than 12 years, said, "We're not just protesting Tom Cat's unjust treatment towards workers, we're also resisting Donald Trump and his administration."

Hector Solis, originally from Mexico City, said he had been working for Tom Cat for 12 years, and has lived in this country for 22 years. Regarding being fired, he told MUNCHIES, "I never expected that this would happen to me. I have a family here, a wife, children—what will happen to them if I'm deported?"

Hector Solis.

Solis is a highly skilled baker who has poured countless hours into his profession. He began to cry as he said, "This job was super important to me. I gave part of my life to this company—I gave them the best that I could for 12 years. I always do my job professionally. It's not like it's easy to start all that over again. What can I do now?" 

Solis pointed out that the ramifications from the crackdown will likely be felt throughout the industry. "There will probably be some bakeries that have to close their doors because it's not like this is just happening here."

MUNCHIES reached out to Tom Cat Bakery—which is owned by one of the world's largest multi-national baking companies, Yamazaki Baking—for comment. In response, Tom Cat sent a press release, which read in part, "While Tom Cat regrets losing valued members of our workforce, we must of course ensure that Tom Cat is in compliance with all applicable employment laws, including those pertaining to authorization to work in the United States."

Several of the workers at the protest said how heartened they were to see Tom Cat customers and workers advocate groups show up at the protest to offer their support. Max Sussman, the owner of Samesa, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Brooklyn, told MUNCHIES, "I wanted to use our business to help support the efforts of the Tom Cat workers being targeted by DHS. We're going to be donating 50 cents of everything we sell today that has bread in it to the Tom Cat workers relief fund." 

Likewise, Sara Elise, owner of Brooklyn-based catering company Harvest & Revel, told MUNCHIES that she showed up at the protest "because no human is 'illegal' and the criminalization of immigrants is abhorrent." She said that continued immigration crackdowns could profoundly impact the food industry: "As both a chef and a US citizen, I know how deeply indebted I am to the hardworking immigrant laborers in this country and I owe it to them to stand by their side as they continue to do everything they can to lead their own struggles for self determination, safety, and freedom."

New York City's food industry has indeed been feeling the pain of President Trump's vows to deport "illegal" immigrants and strengthen the nation's borders. In February, Yemeni bodega owners gathered to made their voices heard following the president's executive order on immigration and travel. 

Rabyaah Althaibani, a Yemeni-American community activist from Brooklyn, NY, and a lead organizer of the Yemeni Bodega strike in February, told MUNCHIES about today's protest, "Tom Cat Bakery workers have the full support of Yemeni bodega owners and workers across New York. Their fight against America's broken immigration system is our fight too."

Brandworkers, Daniel Gross's organization, has been helping the workers organize and try to find a way to receive some fair severance for their many years of work for Tom Cat. Initially, he said, the company did not offer the workers any severance or counseling. Although the company has since softened its stance, Gross said the workers are now being represented by immigration counsel who are exploring "every option" and will continue to do so after today.

Although little hope exists for the fired workers to regain their jobs, many of the workers we spoke with say they remain committed to speaking out and not "hiding in the shadows"—a refrain we heard again and again. And, as far as the food industry goes, the protesters and their supporters all seem to agree on one thing: Immigrant workers won't be easy to replace. 

A representative of Restaurant Opportunities Center, part of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, said at the protest, "Our food system is completely dependent on immigrant workers. We're standing here today because in this great country we need a pathway to citizenship for hardworking people who are putting food on the American table."

The entire food chain may soon be feeling the pain of immigration crackdowns, but no one will suffer as much as the displaced workers. 

In the words of Hector Solis, the now-fired Tom Cat baker, "We aren't bad people. I'm clean. I pay taxes. I work with my name—I've never used someone else's name to work. Maybe I use another social security number, but I've never lied about who I am. I hope people understand the pain in our hearts."