Photo: Courtesy Alex Moore / Teamsters Joint Council 16
As the first images of President Joe Biden’s Oval Office began circulating online, a prominent place on the bust of Labor and Civil Rights Cesar Chavez provoked quick comment. Nestled amid Biden’s family photos behind the president’s desk, the bronze statuette seems to signal a commitment to the struggles of Latinx and the workers fought by Chavez, the founder of the union that would later become the United Agricultural Workers of America.
Meanwhile, far from the inaugural pomp, hundreds of striking workers at the Hunts Point Product Market in the Bronx, New York, have already demonstrated what the struggle for workers’ rights on the ground looks like for those forced to work dangerously close during a pandemic.
Hunts Point is part of New York’s most important food center, processing most of the fruits and vegetables sold in the five districts. Its workers have won praise and press coverage to keep the city full, as the public health crisis has threatened supply chains.
After risking their lives in the past year, Teamsters Local 202 workers asked for only $ 1 an hour in their new contract. Negotiations broke down when management refused, offering an hourly boost of just 32 cents. Union members voted in favor of the strike, starting last Sunday, the first strike on the Hunts Point market in 35 years.
“We worked during a pandemic. I’ve been working here for 28 years and it’s hard work, “said Ismael Kanchela, a warehouse worker and a member of Local 202. He told me that the proposal to raise 32 cents an hour was a slap in the face.
After almost a week on the picket line, the management of Teamsters announced that a preliminary agreement had been reached. On Saturday morning, the strikers voted to approve their new contract, which includes a $ 1.85 salary increase for three years and the termination of all family payments for health plans. Although not the full $ 1 increase they had requested and deserved, there can be little doubt that the terms of the contract were significantly improved by the strike. Supporters raised concerns about whether union leaders were ready to settle too early – a reminder of the importance of making regular decisions – but workers nonetheless celebrated the new contract as a victory.
“We are essential only when it is convenient for them. There were boys who died. I took the virus and took it home to my family. “
After decades of struggle against workers, anti-union labor laws established in this country, the Hunts Point strike comes at a time of stable and powerful labor organization. Last February, the Court passed a comprehensive labor reform bill, the Law on the Protection of the Right to Organize, which will overturn a number of Supreme Court rulings against workers.
The market strike, aimed at a key barrier to trade, underscores the need for collective action, the solidarity it requires and the critical role of strong unions. This type of hard work, which leads to significant casualties on the part of workers, is the least that powerful business owners have to face when workers are considered ‘substantial’ but treated as disposable. .
“We’re only essential when it’s convenient for them,” said Darren Brenner, a 52-year-old warehouse worker who has been a member of Teamsters in the market for 31 years. “There were boys who died. I took the virus and brought it to my family’s home, “he told me Thursday afternoon, standing at the barricaded entrance of the distribution center with several dozen colleagues, maintaining the picket line during the quieter daily shift. Brenner said that while he and his family are fully recovering from Covid-19, many other colleagues are “never coming back” from the disease.
According to a Local spokesman, 202 workers were infected with Covid-19 and six died. “Our work is always dangerous. To offer us 32 cents – to think it costs them. This is an insult. “
Photo: Courtesy Alex Moore / Teamsters Joint Council 16
The Bronx’s own Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes helped draw more attention to Hunts Point, avoiding Washington on Acting Day to join the picket line. And Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., While repeating himself like thousands of gloved memes on social media on Wednesday, tweeted his support for the strike. “Key workers should not strike for decent pay,” he wrote.
When I spoke to Teamsters on the picket line on Thursday, a number expressed gratitude to the politicians who voted for the effort. The focus of their thanks and praise, however, was on other union workers who joined the picket line and contributed supplies and funds: from nurses and teachers to health workers.
“The message that this solidarity is showing to workers in the city, across the country, is very powerful,” said Danny Kane, president of Local 202 since 1999.
The strike attracted up to 500 supporters of the night shifts on the picket line. Tensions escalated in the early hours of Tuesday as more than 300 riot police loaded the picket line and arrested five people allegedly obstructing traffic. Teamsters condemned the arrests on Twitter, then immediately returned to their key message: “These key workers deserve a $ 1 raise.”
Most Hunts Point workers have an average base salary of between $ 18 and $ 21 an hour; some earn only $ 15 an hour. Meanwhile, as Teamsters said in a statement, “market employers who collectively billions of dollars in annual sales received more than $ 15 million in forgivable PPP loans during the pandemic.” The food center regularly raises more than $ 2 billion in annual revenue. , according to the New York Economic Development Corporation.
Against the backdrop of this unexpected case, Jamie Bermudez, a member of Local 202, highlighted the suffering suffered by workers like him who became seriously ill during the pandemic. “I almost died from it,” said Bermudez, who was hospitalized and ill with Covid-19 for a month. “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t eat.”
Numerous workers emphasized that although their treatment during this health crisis had motivated the decision to strike, a significant increase was needed in all circumstances. “Every price goes up, except for our salaries,” Bermudez said. As the strikers talked about colleagues lost to Covid-19 – “another Jamie and Victor!” – a huge Pepsi truck passed by, sounding supportive. A white truck pulled up to the barricades, and workers unloaded wooden pallets to burn for heat on the frosty late January days and nights.
Photo: Natasha Lenard / The Intercept
Along with other unions workers, the strike garnered support from a number of activist communities and organizations, including the Democratic Socialists of America, immigrant rights groups, black liberation fighters, anarchists, and anti-fascists. Angela Fernandez, a leading lawyer and immigrant rights activist, joined the picket line, supporting Teamsters facing immigration challenges in the past.
Fernandez, a candidate for the New York City Council who wants to represent neighboring Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, told me that the intersection of immigrant rights and labor struggles can never be ignored. “We need to understand the deep-rooted connection and intersection of this work,” she said, stressing that the “war on alliances” she acknowledged for Ronald Reagan’s launch was disastrous for workers everywhere.
The wealth of corporations and their owners, compared to the economic hardships faced by those whose labor they exploit, has always been unbearable.
Most of the striking workers live locally. Hunts Point has one of the highest concentrations of Latinx residents in all of New York and nearly half of the area’s population lives below the federal poverty line. Fernandez said organized labor was “ripe for revival” with major strikes as an indispensable object of “public agitation”.
Although thrown in increasing relief from the pandemic, the wealth of corporations and their owners compared to the economic hardships faced by those whose labor they exploit has always been unbearable. Cesar Chavez’s legacy is complicated by his deeply flawed opposition to undocumented immigrants entering the United States, but his statement that “we draw strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live” speaks volumes about this pandemic moment and the workers. organizing in it.
You don’t have to take high risks and pay strike losses to earn a decent salary. But it is clear as day that workers’ rights, protection and livelihoods will not be granted simply because the liberal centrist president places a statue of a prominent union leader in his cabinet. As always, workers and fighters for the liberation of the front lines will lead.
Updated: January 23, 2020, 1:49 PM ET
This story has been updated to include some specifics of the contract to end the strike and the workers’ vote for its approval.