Over 1,400 Workers Win Strike at Hunts Point for Wages and Respect

Labor

The following article was published on Marx21us.org

January 24, 2021

Hunts Point Strike. Photo: © Brett Wallace 2021

If you have ever eaten fresh produce in the New York area, it most likely came through Hunts Point. The Hunts Point Produce Market is the largest globally, serving about 60% of the fresh produce to restaurants and grocery stores in the New York area. The market, an industrial distribution hub based in the Bronx and a critical lifeline of fresh food to the city, remained open through the pandemic. This past week it was shut down for seven days after Local 202 unionized warehouse workers walked off their jobs on Sunday, January 17, when contract negotiations with management broke down.

Workers were striking for an increase of $1.60 – a dollar per hour wage increase and an additional 60 cents in health benefits. While contract negotiations over wages and benefits are typical, the last strike at the market was in 1986, 35 years ago. Some of the strikers can recall memories from it. Throughout this past week, workers and organizations worldwide watched workers fight for the respect and dignity they deserve after working through the worst pandemic in our lifetime. I learned from one worker that COVID-19 infected 400 of his co-workers, six of whom had died. He described coming into work one night and seeing a picture hanging on the wall of a co-worker who died over the weekend from the virus. These workers’ experience working through the pandemic stands in stark contrast to the meager 32-cent counter-offer they received from management.

Hunts Point Strike. Photo: © Brett Wallace 2021

On Thursday evening, day five of the strike, the energy, optimism, and support for and amongst the workers remained palpable, despite the cold winter temperatures and not knowing where things might end. Workers huddled and conversed in small groups behind the picket line, many with Local 202 union signs hanging from their jackets and safety vests. The Local 804 Teamsters, representing UPS drivers in New York, were out in full support of the Local 202, including Teamsters from New England. I observed strikers arriving at the lot like any other workday and signing in to work their regular shifts behind the picket line. By 8 pm, the graveyard shift had come, and the group quadrupled in size. Next to the sign-in line, there was a grill and a large table of food provisions. The food, drinks, hand warmers, and incoming pizza deliveries were all donated, signifying how these workers have inspired a community around them in their struggle. The strike had considerable support from the DSA, South Bronx Mutual Aid, and locally elected politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Amanda Septino, who rallied community support. Some workers huddled around small fires at the back of the lot. A tractor-trailer pulled into the market every so often, nothing like the typical volume of trucks on Thursday nights. Workers mentioned to me how they sent rail cars stacked with produce back to Ohio the night before. And how truckers continued to halt their deliveries to the market in support of the strike.

Hunts Point Strike. Photo: © Brett Wallace 2021

Rallied by the union leadership and supported by communities in New York, these workers fought for the distance, carrying a long history of family ties, tradition, and organizing into this struggle. The Local 202 has been transporting fresh produce for over 100 years, going back to horse-drawn carts in the streets now known as Tribeca. These workers are accustomed to harsh working conditions and going without. A worker described the work today as more mechanized, physically demanding, lifting and pulling boxes of produce all day, with little space to social distance. I met workers who had put 20, 30, and even 40+ years in the job. They were not about to give in for what they have worked so hard for. 

While the market communicated on social media that it remained open, it was effectively closed all week. The work stoppage undoubtedly dealt a considerable blow to its operations. One worker described that operations were likely severely backed up with rotting produce and inexperienced replacement workers unable to keep up with the pace. The irony is that while the management declined the union’s demand for a fair wage and benefits, it hired private security as well as partnering with the NYPD to avoid disruptions in incoming deliveries. On Martin Luther King Day, the NYPD arrested several strikers for blocking trucks entering the market. Daniel Kane Jr, President of Local 202, commented, “they can use riot cops to get trucks into the market, but the workers they need to unload the trucks are still on the picket line. We will stay on strike until these employers pay their workers the essential wage they deserve.”

Seeing the solidarity across Teamsters’ members at a warehouse strike reminded me of the protests in recent years at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse situated at the opposite end of the city on Staten Island. In April 2020, Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker, was fired from JFK8 for calling out Amazon for downplaying its Coronavirus cases and not providing its warehouse workers with PPE and safety precautions. Smalls continues to shine a light on Amazon’s poor treatment of his colleagues still working in the warehouses. 

Labor struggles are continual steps forward and arise across locations and job functions. While Amazon is notoriously anti-union, it does partner with UPS, the largest single employer of Teamsters in the country. The Teamsters Local 804, who was out at Hunts Point to support the Local 202, represents New York members who sort, transport and deliver UPS packages. These workers’ struggles and others are distant but interconnected and influence each other and the broader labor movement.

On Friday, January 22, the discussions continued between the Local 202 and market management. And, by Friday evening, the parties had reached a tentative agreement. On Saturday morning, around 10:15 am, I followed hundreds of cheering workers into the market as they went to vote, sign and ratify their three-year contract. The final result was 97% of workers voting in favor of the new agreement. While the newly ratified contract does not immediately include the $1.00 per hour raise they fought for, it does represent the largest wage increase they’ve received in the history of the union there. The final three-year contract includes a minimum 70-cent-per-hour raise for all warehouse workers and drivers in the first year, going up to 1.85 in the third year of the agreement, and they protected their health benefits and pensions.  Workers will also be receiving 8 sick days, instead of a floating holiday. These workers fought hard for this victory by walking out on the 32 cent counter offer they were first offered, standing up for themselves amidst their management and the police coming down on them, while inspiring the community around them with their fortitude. Their result shows the power that numbers of workers have when they fight hard and rally support for what they believe in. 

Hunts Point Strike. Photo: © Brett Wallace 2021