A significant victory for the workers’ movement was won on Jan. 23. After six days of striking in freezing temperatures, the warehouse workers and drivers at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, NY, ended their strike with 97 percent vote to ratify a new three-year contract that reflected workers’ demands for a higher wage. These workers, represented by Teamsters Local 202, then celebrated the new contract with a toast to their united struggle.
At the celebration, Leonardo Perez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who works and lives in Hunts Point told Liberation News,”I’m happy because this is what we’ve been fighting for all week, for a better future for ourselves.”
This was a major gain for the workers’ movement, showing that unity and solidarity is the way to win gains even during the COVID-19 pandemic
The Hunts Point Produce Market is the largest wholesale produce market in the United States, and workers process an estimated 60 percent of New York City’s fruits and vegetables. Since many of the meals eaten by New Yorkers pass through these warehouses, the strike could have impacted grocery stores, restaurants, and residents throughout the city. Yet workers were offered only a $0.32 an hour raise, an insultingly low amount after 10 months of dangerous work during the COVID-19 pandemic. So they voted to strike for the first time in 35 years.
Strategic union and community solidarity
The strike of 1,400 workers lasted six days and received wide support from across the city. When six striking workers were arrested for blocking trucks from entering the market, hundreds of supporters joined the 24-hour picket lines until the end of the strike, according to the union, many bringing hot food, firewood and hand warmers.
Crown Heights Service Industry Workers, the Transit Workers Union, members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Democratic Socialists of America and workers’ families were among the many who stood in solidarity through the bitter cold days. The staff at a high school that brings in students from all over New York City raised $500 for the strike solidarity fund.
Workers from Ohio operating one train loaded with 21 cars of produce refused to transport the goods from Hunts Point, stating that they too were Teamsters union members. Disrupting the normal inflow of produce was an essential strategy for the striking workers, using the loss of merchandise and the threat of rotting produce as leverage to force management to hear workers’ demands.
Hunts Point Market opposed the union’s demands even though it had received $15 million in forgivable PPP loans from the federal government. Management even relied on riot police to break the strikers’ picket line and bring trucks and scabs into the market. But the united strikers and the strong show of union and community solidarity became the powerful force that brought management back to the bargaining table. Owners had to scramble to barely stay open, recruiting non-union workers, supervisors, and even family members to try to fill in the essential labor that the strikers withheld.
Workers were able to negotiate an immediate $0.70 raise, as well as increased health benefits and future annual raises. These increases are crucial for workers making between $15 and $22 hourly, many of whom struggle to support their families on stagnant wages.
Corporate disregard for essential workers‘ lives
Over 70 percent of the Hunts Point Produce Market workers are residents of the Bronx, a borough deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bronx residents, who are 90 percent people of color, are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to a long history of redlining, low-wage work, negative environmental health factors and more. At the Hunts Point Produce Market, hundreds of workers have been infected, and at least six have died from the virus so far.
“It’s not fair that these companies didn’t want to recognize that we are essential to New York City,” Tomas, one of the workers celebrating on Jan. 23, told Liberation News in Spanish. “Here, many of our coworkers fell … died in this struggle because of the pandemic.”
The pandemic has made it clear that workers — nurses, teachers, delivery drivers, warehouse workers — are the ones who keep society running. Now, struggles like those at Hunts Point point the way forward by showing that these workers have power.
During the celebrations on Jan. 23, Danny Kane, president of Teamsters Local 202, said: “Regular hardworking people can do miracles. They’re the people who do the living, fighting, dying and building in this country. And I think they deserve, particularly [what] these workers have earned by their struggle. It’s through struggle that we make change; change will come if we move our feet.”