NYC Teamsters win battle against ‘filthy rich bosses’
Strikers active at night at the Hunts Point Market | Cameron Orr/PW

HUNTS POINT, Bronx — Members of the Teamsters Local 202 in the Bronx secured a major victory January 23rd after a week-long strike for higher wages and better healthcare provisions.

Workers at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx went on strike Saturday, January 17th, after the employers refused to budge on a stingy offer. One week later, they were celebrating “the largest raises in the history of their bargaining unit.” It was Local 202’s first strike since 1986.

Even as temperatures dropped into the “code blue” 20s this week, Local 202 kept the 24/7 picket line going. Some members gathered in clusters around makeshift bonfires directly on the pavement and in garbage cans, some danced to the music pumping out of their cars parked along the side, and from a large battery-powered PA. Others stood around in conversation.

“These bosses are filthy rich, and they can’t give us a dollar,” one worker protested. “We’re out here working through bad weather, hot, cold. … They claim that there’s no business,” he added, but said at the supermarket “they were gouging the prices. … There wasn’t that much [on the shelf]; everybody was buying at whatever price,” but “they don’t wanna give us a dollar now, not even a thank you.”

The workers were demanding a $1 an hour raise and better healthcare. “They deserve $4 an hour,” Teamsters 202 Rep. Charles Machadio said. When the companies responded by offering 32 cents, the union voted to walk out. “32 cents is a smack in the face, said another worker. “I’ve been working [here] for 26 years.”

The parked cars with “Stop the War on Workers” signs ended where a line of outhouses began. Along the back of the barricaded area, a table set up with food and supplies was kept replenished by visitors in solidarity.

Essential Workers, Low Wages

The 1400 truck drivers and warehouse workers at the Hunts Point Terminal Market supply NYC with 60% of its produce. It is the largest wholesale produce market in the world, and the workers there provide for 22 million people in 49 states.

As frontline workers, “they can’t telecommute, they can’t phone it in,” Local 202 President Daniel Kane Jr. said. “These folks didn’t become essential during the pandemic. They have been essential forever.”

Hunts Point Produce Market is made up of more than 30 companies represented on a “cooperative” board, led by co-presidents Stephen Katzman and Joel Fierman, with an annual revenue of more than $2 billion. The companies have collected more than $15 million from the government in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans, but those working through the pandemic so that NYC can eat have not been paid what they deserve.

Before the strike, most workers at Hunts Point were making $18 to $21 an hour.

Low wages were not the only problem. “When the pandemic started … they were not giving us anything to protect us. We had to bring our own things, our mask and everything,” Vimel Almonte told People’s World.

Three to four hundred workers have been infected and six workers have died.

Adding insult to injury, Hunts Point Market attempted to increase workers’ contributions to their healthcare.

Solidarity with 202

Local 202 received support from the broader Labor movement, and more will be needed in the battles ahead. All frontline workers deserve wage increases and safe working conditions. Continued support on future picket lines from transportation, teachers, warehouse, health care, and food processing workers will strengthen the union movement as a whole.

“I’m here fighting for my brothers and my sisters,” a construction worker named Jennifer told People’s World on the strike line. “I’m Local 79. This is for 202. They deserve what they’re asking for, even more!”

Christina Gavin, a public school teacher in NYC said, “I’m part of the United Federation of Teachers, and this summer we were threatening to go on a strike. The Central Labor Council said that all of the other unions would stand with us if we do, so I thought it was important to stand [with Local 202] today.”

A locomotive engineer driving a freight train with 21 cars full of merchandise turned around Wednesday night after he saw the strike, saying, “We’re Teamsters, too.”

Ben Rosenfield, a tenant organizer with the Metropolitan Council on Housing, also sent People’s World a statement in solidarity with the workers on behalf of NYC’s oldest citywide tenant association.

“All workers deserve a living wage, especially during a pandemic. We stand in solidarity with the striking Hunts Point Produce Market workers — fair wages and housing justice are part of the same fight. As thousands of New York tenants are currently on rent strike, we recognize the importance and power of labor strikes in the midst of this crisis.”

NYC Councilmembers Brad Lander and Ben Kallos joined Local 202 at their press conference on the first day of the strike. New York Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa from Washington Heights came out the night of Wednesday, January 20th to support the striking workers, as did NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, US House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others.

Referencing MLK’s legacy at the picket line rally, Ocasio-Cortez said, “On that last day, in that last speech, he was standing up . . . with sanitation workers and [their union], demanding better working conditions, demanding an end to poverty, demanding an end to war, demanding better material and just outcomes for all people in the United States.”

Cops and strikebreakers

One half of the market’s main entrance was claimed by Local 202 during the strike. Often, when strikebreakers drove through the other half, Local 202 members flowed out from behind their barricades, chanting “TWO-OH-TWO” and “Who’s city? Our city!”, blocking the scabs’ cars and trucks and turning them away before returning to their central command.

Police on the scene would counter the workers’ moves, telling the workers they “can’t block,” and making way for the strikebreakers, explaining they were just “doing their jobs.” The produce companies had stated openly that they were coordinating directly with the NYPD and another private security firm to maintain a steady flow of scabs.

Responding to police counter attacks, union leaders would corral the crowd back behind the barricades.

Union meeting on the picket line

“Fighting with those guys out there is nice, but it doesn’t get us anywhere,” Local 202 VP Servedio explained. “That’s not our fight. Our fight is with these rich bastards that are in here,” he exclaimed, pointing toward the market.

“Let’s keep it positive, … we’ll talk, we’ll sing, we’ll dance, we’ll give each other information” about “the new, the 21st Century Labor movement. ‘Cause God knows we all need to be educated about it; they don’t teach it in colleges anymore.”

“We can take over that street and I love the militancy of it,” Local 202 President Kane said, “[but] I don’t want something to happen where we got to give up our central command. … Many strikes … are stuck behind barricades somewhere two blocks away. … When we stop the road for 10 minutes and then come back here, that gives us the ability to do it again, but if we don’t do it right, we’ll [lose that] ability.”

Some of the strikebreakers were union members betraying their fellow workers and had been spotted driving through the picket line with their union hat on the dashboard.

“Everyone wants to know what we’re going to do with the scabs,” Kane continued. “Day in and day out when you’re working next to someone who disrespected you like that … they have to feel from you the disconnect, they have to feel like ‘Shame on you.’ ”

On Monday night, when five union members were arrested while protesting the strikebreakers, Kane said union discipline helped negotiate their return. “I want you to return my hostages,” he had told the NYPD officers. “I don’t want no one in the system getting locked up for assault, because they didn’t assault anybody.” The workers minimized their confrontations with the police, and the hostages were back on the picket line in a couple of hours.

Kane expressed his anger at the arrests. “It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes … our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise. … The fact that they were arrested on Martin Luther King Day reminds us what side of history we are on.”

The union: a school of class struggle

For some of the workers at the site, this was their first union battle.

“I didn’t know what this union stuff was about, but I’m seeing it first hand right now,” one rank and file worker declared. “[For] everybody that’s here — you’re me, and I’m you. I’m scared. I got a family. … I got bills just like everybody else. I don’t know how long this is gonna last, but I’m here till the end and y’all better be here!

“I want to be able to stand proud when I’m sitting there, picking up a box next to this man or next to this man and say, ‘Yo, how you doing brother, how you feeling today,’ and feel proud.”

A historic victory for Labor

On Saturday morning, January 23rd, news broke out of a tentative agreement, and Local 202 members marched into the Hunts Point Market to vote on a 3-year contract. More than 97% of the workers voted in favor.

By exercising its power to stop production, Local 202 compelled the market to raise workers’ wages by 70 cents in the first year, an additional 50 cents the second year, and another 65 cents in the third, reaching a total $1.85 hourly raise. The increases push most of the workforce past $20 an hour.

Local 202 also defeated the companies’ attempts to increase workers’ out-of-pocket health costs. Instead, the employers themselves will be increasing health fund contributions, and Local 202 also won two additional sick days per year.

“We won because we fought,” Teamsters Joint Council 16 tweeted.

The workers at Hunts Point, striking at a critical point of distribution in NYC, have added another heroic story to the history of the Labor movement, laying the basis for greater confidence on the part of US Labor nationally to claim the right to a better way of life. Combined with the electoral defeat of the extreme right nationally, it sends a positive signal for the Labor and democratic movements in 2021 and beyond.


CONTRIBUTOR

Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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