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labor In a Six-Day Strike, Bronx Produce Workers Doubled Their Raise and Inspired New York

After six days off the job, the strikers at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx ratified a contract that doubled management’s wage offer and defeated a health care cost increase.

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"[The companies] can’t take those losses for too long," one striker said mid-week. "They think anyone can do this job, but we know that they need us.”, Photo: Teamsters Joint Council 16

Drivers and warehouse workers who feed New York City have won their strike. After six days off the job, the strikers at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx ratified a contract that doubled management’s wage offer and defeated a health care cost increase.

The 1,400 workers at the world’s largest wholesale produce market, members of Teamsters Local 202, are responsible for packing and delivering 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables that go to restaurants and grocery stores in New York City.

The unit is comprised of 14 different companies that bargain a contract together. Before the strike, the employers were offering a raise of just 32 cents an hour, and wanted to pass on to workers an increase in health care costs.

The strikers demanded a $1-an-hour raise and no increased cost for health care. They pointed out that they have been working throughout the pandemic, putting their lives at risk. Ten workers have died of Covid since the pandemic began.

“The companies stopped providing PPE [personal protective equipment] months ago, back in September,” said Frankie, a Local 202 member I met on the picket line, who has been with his company for 28 years.

“They don’t even require workers to wear masks at work,” he said. “They also took the handwashing stations out back in September. It’s like they decided that Covid was over.

“Meanwhile the companies received $15 million in PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans each! I’m striking to show my daughters that just because we are poor does not mean we don’t stand up for what we deserve.”

ARRESTED ON MLK DAY

The workers called the strike on a Sunday night, January 17, after negotiations broke down. They started to picket both entrances to the Hunts Point Market.

The next evening, police showed up in riot gear and announced that any workers continuing to picket in the entrances would be arrested. The workers kept their picket lines moving until a group of around 50 police officers rushed them and arrested five people.

“It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise today,” said Local 202 President Danny Kane in a statement. “These are the essential workers who went to work every day through the worst of the pandemic to feed New York. All they are asking for is a dollar-an-hour raise so they can feed their families too. The fact that they were arrested on Martin Luther King Day reminds us what side of history we are on.”

Videos of the police attacking the striking workers soon went viral, and the community responded with an outpouring of solidarity. Major support came from the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, which set up a table to keep the strikers fed and warm, and collected donations totaling more than $31,000 that went to things like firewood, hand warmers, and hot food.

The workers continued to picket behind the barricades that the police had set up on both sides of the entrance. They resorted to shouting down scabs and co-workers who were crossing the picket line. The police attempted to stop the strikers from trying to talk people out of crossing the line, in some cases physically escorting them back to the barricades.

The police continued to be a presence and were accused of targeting the night shift, where most workers were Black and Brown and the white leadership was visibly absent. Some workers were eager to continue to picket in the entrance, while some of the union leadership urged them to be patient and let leaders handle the situation.

The workers received a number of visits from local politicians, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who does not represent the district but lives nearby. Teamster leaders and rank and file were overwhelmed by the support; many visited the table to thank the supporters, and said things like, “We wouldn’t be able to still be out here if it wasn’t for you guys.”

The picket line ran 24/7; people took the same shifts they normally would work. Many of the workers mentioned that this was their first time striking—but that they felt it had been a long time coming.

“Every contract we talk about striking, but we never do,” said Jason, a packer who has been with his company for seven years. “This time was different. In 2021, in the middle of a pandemic and they’re saying we are essential and all of that, so why not pay us the dollar?”

‘WE KNOW THEY NEED US’

By Wednesday, union leaders announced that they were back at the negotiating table, and workers were anticipating a deal soon. “Yesterday, a whole train full of produce from Ohio turned around and refused to cross the line,” a driver named Jose told me that day. He has been with his company for 35 years.

“The guys that they are trying to bring in to do our jobs don’t know kale from spinach,” he said. “The food will go bad waiting for someone to unpack, and they can’t take those losses for too long. They think anyone can do this job, but we know that they need us.”

Spirits were high on the picket line, and on Friday, after another visit from Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, leaders announced they had a tentative agreement. Terms were to be announced the next morning on the picket line; supporters were invited to a victory brunch.

On Saturday morning, crowds gathered at the picket line; leaders led groups of workers a few at a time into the market to discuss the terms and vote on the contract. Supporters stood by waiting anxiously.

Soon the news was shared and celebrated by all: the deal had been ratified by 97 percent of the members voting.

HOPING TO INSPIRE

The new contract includes an immediate raise of 70 cents an hour, followed by a 50-cent raise in 2022. Warehouse workers who currently make $18.57 an hour, as well as all drivers, will see a 65-cents-an-hour raise in 2023. Warehouse workers currently earning $20.70 will receive a $1,300 bonus in 2023 instead of the 65 cents. The strike also stopped the company from increasing what workers pay for family health care benefits.

“It’s not the dollar we wanted, but it’s a win,” Jose said, “and next time we will fight even harder. I’m glad we did this, because before we felt like nobody cared about us, nobody knew us.

“Now we know that New York City supports Black and immigrant workers, some of us formerly incarcerated, many of us just trying to feed our kids and make a better life for them.

“Hopefully other workers will get inspired to fight for what they deserve, by seeing us do it.”

Bianca Cunningham is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.bianca@labornotes.org

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