Amongst the industrial landscape of Hunts Point, warehouse worker Cheick Oumar A. Barry took refuge from the crippling winter air as he huddled over the amber flames of a campfire. Exhausted and cold, his spirit was not depleted. He said he was willing to endure the bitter cold another week.
“This is nothing. Even if it’s raining or snowing, we will be here until we win.”
And win they did. Beginning last Sunday, Barry and 1,400 other members of Teamsters Local 202, many of whom are immigrants, walked off the job. Hundreds of workers and their supporters camped outside the gates of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, which is located in the South Bronx, refusing to return to work until the management agreed to raise their hourly wages by one dollar and improve their health plan. The strike gained nationwide attention when on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, skipped the Inauguration of President Biden to instead walk the picket line with the workers.
The strike is the first time workers at the market have walked off the job in 35 years. Until Friday night, management refused to budge from their counteroffer of a 32 cent raise. However, with reduced staff, management struggled to keep up; threatening to choke the region’s food supply.
On Saturday morning, after hours of late-night negotiations, the union reached an agreement with management that won the largest raises in the history of the union’s bargaining unit. In the new contract, workers will earn a minimum 70 cents-per-hour raise in the first year, eventually earning a $1.85 raise over three years. In response, workers voted overwhelmingly to approve the new contract and voted to end the strike.
“We appreciate people applauding and thanking essential workers but we had to keep our families fed as we fed the city,” said Daniel Kane, Jr., President of Teamsters Local 202, before a boisterous crowd of workers. “You have to work together, fight together, dance together and smile together. That’s what we did.”
Surprisingly, the strike began to gain widespread attention after police arrested several striking workers during a protest on Martin Luther King Jr Day.
“It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise,” says Kane. “These are the essential workers who went to work every day through the worst of the pandemic to feed New York.”
As the largest wholesale produce market in the world, Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market serves 22 million people and is part of a massive food distribution complex that is the main artery in the metropolitan region’s food distribution network. It’s likely that all produce at your local supermarket, from the cantaloupes to the tangerines made their way through the market at one point.
The complex hosts 20,000 direct jobs, including an army of 8,500 unionized workers, and generates $5 billion in annual revenue. The vast majority of the workforce is made of people of color and immigrants who earn on average, $30,000 to $40,000 annually. Being essential workers, many continued to work throughout the pandemic despite the increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus. With the Bronx emerging as the city’s virus epicenter, six workers succumbed to the virus and hundreds more were infected
Yet workers like Barry, who immigrated from his village in Burkina Faso in 2014, continued to go into work every day despite the risk. Employed at the market for over four years, Barry sends money to his wife back home, with hopes of one day sending for her to live with him in the Bronx. Still, he finds it difficult to subsist on only $18 an hour.
“It’s not a lot of money, especially when the work is hard and rent goes up, bills go up. How do they expect us to live and work at the same time?”
To supplement his income, Barry is forced to work nights for Uber Eats part-time. Despite the low pay, however, Barry is grateful that he has a job that is protected by a union.
“It’s not like I like the job, but it’s better than a non-union job on the outside that doesn’t pay anything.”
Notwithstanding his financial responsibilities, he has elected to forgo his Uber Eats gig to camp out on the picket line.
“The union works for us and it fights for us. So I should fight for us,” he said. “Anything the union does for me I stay and fight with them too.”
For porter, Bruno Pena, who said he contracted COVID-19 in the spring and had to stay home for two weeks, he found the management’s initial offer of 32 cents as an insult.
“32 cents an hour is nothing. Everything is getting higher and we cannot live with this little money so we try to fight for a little bit more,” he said. “We never stopped working during this pandemic. We are on the front lines.”
An immigrant from Mexico, Pena has worked at Hunts Point for 32 years. The job has allowed him to support his family of four. Despite the relative security of the job, he says the work is inherently dangerous. In July, while climbing a ladder he fell and hurt his arm and shoulder.
“The job is kind of dangerous because we have to use the machines and many people get hurt,” he said. “Sometimes my arm still hurts but I got to continue to work because I got to pay the rent.”
Alavora Mendez has worked at Hunts Point ever since he immigrated from Colombia in 1971. Commuting from his home in Jackson Heights daily, the market has become his second home. To him, the strike has become more than just a simple labor dispute: it has become a fight for dignity.
“This strike is personal because we really need the money. We are good people and good workers. We do a lot of work all day night. It’s not about the money but it’s about our lives.”
Far from being shown the proper respect as essential employees, many of the workers described management’s cavalier attitude towards them. At least four workers interviewed mentioned how many managers told workers that they were lucky to have jobs when workers complained of low pay and mistreatment. To them the strike is in part to turn the tables on management and settle a fundamental question: are workers lucky to have jobs or are boss’s lucky to have workers coming into work?
“The boss thinks he pays big money but tells us we should be grateful to have a job,” he says. “But if we don’t come they make no money.”