NYC Teamsters strike against “filthy rich bosses”

BY:Cameron Orr| January 22, 2021
NYC Teamsters strike against “filthy rich bosses”


Editor’s note:  This article has been updated to include the Jan. 23 strike settlement. 

In Hunts Point, the Bronx, temperatures dropped into the “code blue” 20s Wednesday night, but workers on strike at the Hunts Point Produce Market kept the picket line going. Some 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.

The majority of workers make $18 to $21/hour. They are demanding a $1 an hour raise and better health care. “They deserve $4 an hour,” Teamsters 202 Rep. Charles Machadio has said. When the companies responded by offering 32 cents, Local 202 voted to strike. Said one worker, “32 cents is a smack in the face. I’ve been working [here] for 26 years, that should mean something. We serve the city, now we need.”

“These bosses are filthy rich, and they can’t give us a dollar,” another said. “We’re out here working through bad weather, hot, cold. . . . They claim that there’s no business,” he added, but “at the supermarket, if you go to the shelf, there wasn’t that much there,” and “everybody was buying at whatever price. . . . These bosses took advantage of that and raised all the prices, and they don’t wanna give us a dollar now, not even a thank you.”

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

Essential Workers, Low Wages

The 1,400 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.”

The Hunts Point Produce Market is made up of more than 30 companies represented on a “cooperative” board with an annual revenue of more than $2 billion. Stephen Katzman, owner of S. Katzman Produce, and Joel Fierman, president of Fierman Produce Exchange, are co-presidents of the board. Companies represented on the board 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.

“They got richer and we got poorer,” Local 202 member Vimel Almonte told People’s World.

Low wages are 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,” Almonte added.

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

Solidarity with 202

Local 202 has support from the broader labor movement, but more is needed. All frontline workers around the country deserve wage increases and safe working conditions and have a stake in this fight. An outpouring of support from transportation, teachers, warehouse, health-care,  and food-processing workers can strengthen the picket lines and 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. “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 earlier that night after he saw the strike line, 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 Council members Brad Lander and Ben Kallos joined Local 202 at their press conference on the first day of the strike. New York State Assembly Member Carmen De La Rosa from Washington Heights came out Wednesday 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 has been taken by the 24/7 picket line, where unionists have secured their own base behind barricades.

On Wednesday night, just as the rally with elected officials’ was winding down, a line of trucks began to creep through the open part of the entrance. Local 202 members flowed out.

After blocking the entrance for some minutes, chanting “TWO-OH-TWO” and “Who’s city? Our city!” one car and a few trucks started to back up and finally left, to big cheers. Police blocked off the entrance, telling the workers they “can’t block,” and explaining it was their job to keep the coast clear for strikebreakers. The produce companies have stated openly that they are coordinating directly with the NYPD and another private security firm to maintain a steady flow of scabs through it.

Union meeting on the picket line

At that point, union leaders began to corral the crowd back into the barricades, where they held an informal meeting.

“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, let’s keep it moving. . . . Have fun, we’ll talk, we’ll sing, we’ll dance, we’ll give each other information about what this movement is about. It’s about the labor movement. 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.”

Local 202 President Kane said:

We know we can take over that street, and I love the militancy of it. . . . This is hallowed ground right now. . . . For the last three days it’s been our property, we own this and I don’t want something to happen where we got to give up our central command. Many strikes, because they don’t have this kind of militancy and power, are stuck behind barricades somewhere two blocks away from the place.

“When we stop the road for 10 minutes and then come back here, that gives us the ability to do it again,” Kane said to the strikers. “If we don’t do it right, we’ll never have the ability to do it again.”

“Everyone wants to know what we’re going to do with the scabs,” he continued.

I’m gonna remember every face . . .  and never speak or give respect to that person ever again in my life. And . . .  we’ll take their union books and they’ll never be members again. . . . They don’t believe in the union anyway. That guy [with the union] hat in his car [just] crossed the picket line. I’m sure he was there when we handed out the benefits. I’m sure he was there for all the hand-outs, but that’s not what a member is. A member is a member when he shows up when it’s tough times.

Day in and day out when you’re working next to someone who disrespected you like that on a picket line . . . they have to feel from you the disconnect, they have to feel like ‘Shame on you,’ like ‘I don’t talk to you.’ . . . It used to be that way in this country. And that’s why a lot of people [wouldn’t do it], it was the shame of it. . . . You do what? You cross picket lines? You hurt working people? That’s the lowest thing you could do.

Kane recalled the experience of Monday night, when five union members were arrested while protesting the strikebreakers and peacefully preventing their entry. He told them it was union discipline that allowed him to negotiate their return that night. “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.” Union members minimized their confrontations with the police, and their union brothers and sisters were back on the picket line in a couple of hours.

Kane expressed his anger at the arrests in a Tuesday press release. “It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise today. . . . 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 is their first union battle. “I’ve been in this market two and half years,” one rank and file worker declared.

I didn’t know what this union stuff was about, but I’m seeing it first hand right now. . . . [For] everybody that’s here — you’re me, and I’m you. I’m scared. I got a family. I got nine boys; I just had a baby, three months old. 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. I love each and every one of you. Even the ladies and gentlemen that aren’t a part of the union that came to show support — I love you; I appreciate you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!

Speaking to the members behind the barricades, Local 202 President Kane said the strike will end when the company negotiates with all the workers in plain sight. “If they came down right here like reasonable people, we negotiate the contract on the edge of that car [right there], and I turn around to you folks and say, ‘Well, what do you wanna do?  — because that’s democracy — that’s how we’ll end it. That’s how we’ll end up getting a contract or not. And if you say, ‘Fight on,’ we’ll be fighting on.”


On Saturday morning, January 23, Local 202 members voted overwhelmingly to approve a new 3-year contract, “with the largest raises in the history of their bargaining unit.” By exercising their power to stop production, workers compelled Hunts Point Market companies to raise their wages by 70 cents year 1, 50 cents year 2, and 65 cents year 3, for a total of $1.85 by year 3. The contract pushes most of the workforce past $20 an hour, Local 202 President Daniel Kane said.

Local 202 also defeated the companies’ attempts to increase workers’ out-of-pocket health costs, instead forcing increases in the employers’ health fund contributions. Local 202 also won two additional sick days per year.

“We won because we fought,” Teamsters Joint Council 16 tweeted. JC 16 includes 27 affiliated local unions, including Local 202, and represents 120,000 workers in the Greater New York area and Puerto Rico.

Combined with the electoral defeat of the ultra-right nationally, the victory of an industrial workers’ strike at a crucial point of production in NYC lays the basis for continuing to build a powerful labor movement in 2021 and beyond.

Images: Cameron Orr


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