“We Fought ’Em Hard”: Hunts Point Produce Workers Toast Victory After Approving Contract – Gothamist

The union representing 1,400 workers at the Hunts Point Produce Market popped open champagne bottles as they celebrated the end of a nearly weeklong strike for increased pay in their next three-year contract.

The warehouse workers and drivers that collectively make up Teamsters Local 202 hailed the ratification of the contract on Saturday. This came after the vote was taken at 10 a.m. at a so-called neutral zone within the distribution hub’s property. The contract was approved by 97% of the union’s members.

Shortly after the ratification, members took a victory lap outside the strike area they picketed for nearly a week as cars passing by honked their horns in solidarity, and crowds shouted chants of “si se puede” (“yes we can”). As members raised a glass in celebration, another member was seen holding up a toy replica of Mjolnir, the mythical hammer used by Marvel Comics’ Thor.

The ratification of the contract ends the strike that began on January 17th after the union’s negotiating team could not come to a consensus with the Hunts Point Cooperative Board. Union members had asked for a $1 increase to their hourly pay and .60 cents more pay to cover their health insurance, emphasizing that workers kept working throughout the pandemic. The company initially counter-offered with a 32-cent hourly wage increase and 60-cent hourly increase towards their health insurance coverage. The strike—the first since 1986–raised concerns over how disruptive it will be to the city’s food supply, where 60% of its fruits and vegetables come from the massive market.

“Thirty-two cents when people are risking their lives in a pandemic was not good enough,” Charles Machadio, a union trustee. And they just didn’t understand it. You were giving us less in this contract than we were getting in the last contract.”

The two sides had returned to the table at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo, according to Daniel Kane Jr., the Teamsters Local 202 president.

Under the terms, workers will be paid a minimum of 70 cents an hour more the first year, 50 cents more the second year, and 65 cents more the third year. They will also receive a one-time $1300 bonus in 2023. Workers will also receive the same health insurance coverage without having to pay an increase. Workers will head back to work beginning Sunday, when the contract takes effect. The deal is not expected to be retroactive.

“It’s not often that workers take their fate in their hands, and decide to put their hands together to fight for a better tomorrow,” Kane Jr. said at a news conference Saturday. “And these folks did that. And I’m hoping that that will resonate with workers throughout this country because our members are essential, and decent, hardworking family people.”

The extra pay was good news for Jeff Ratliff, a Bronx resident and employee who works at the “Potato House” inside the hub, who said the new contract was fair given the physical demands put on workers.

“You got to have dignity with yourself, you got to get respect where you work,” Ratliff said. “Sometimes you work for companies, and […] you’re just like a machine to them. Nothing else.”

He added, “You [are] in this market more than you’re home […] Who want to come to a house where you don’t get no respect from your kids?”

Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr., who represents the Hunts Point area, said the job and the union meant a lot to his father.

“I remember my dad coming in at three in the morning. I remember my dad coming home and talking about the struggles and how tired he was. But he was proud,” Salamanca Jr. said at the rally. “You gave a Puerto Rican man with no education, which is my father, an opportunity. And my father was able to provide for my family. We got health care, he brought food to the table. And here I am today; this young man from the South Bronx, as a New York City Council Member because of Local 202.”

Salamanca Jr. was among a slew of lawmakers who threw their support behind the striking workers, along with Assemblymember Amanda Septimo, and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres.

Throughout the six days where workers stood out in the cold, missing a day’s pay each day to protest the company’s wages, support for them intensified, with local elected officials like Ocasio-Cortez and Torres amplifying the workers’ concerns in a letter to the U.S. Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board. Most of the members at the 24/7 industrial hub made between $18 to $21 an hour.

For many, the strike represented a watershed moment for essential workers who did not stop doing their jobs during the pandemic, where they were lauded for helping to keep the lights on throughout the crisis. The pandemic impacted workers at the hub, which remained open even as workers became sick or passed away.

“We lost six people during COVID that are dead. They never made it home, some of them had died in their wives arms,” Leonardo Servedio, the union vice president, said. “We couldn’t attend a funerals because there was no funeral services.”

For Severdio, an employee at the distribution hub for more than 30 years, the pandemic lit a fire for a labor movement he thinks will take off nationally and resonate with young people.

“They must know the struggle of their forefathers and ancestors from whatever country they come from, that came to America and suffered. And they worked hard, and they built the American dream. Without struggle, there is no reap. And that’s what they have to understand. These young people today came here, (and) they absorb that knowledge. And now we’re going to start to create a movement. It’s called the new labor movement.”

Of the company, Severdio said, “We fought ’em hard.”

In a statement, Stephen Katzman, co-president of the Hunts Point Cooperative Board who doubles as owner of S. Katzman Produce, said the resolution allows the hub to help continue feeding the city.

“We are very pleased to have been able to negotiate a new contract that provides our workers with an over 10%  increase in hourly wages and fringe benefits over the next three years,” Katzman said in the statement.  “With an average annual increase just under three-times the current cost of living increase, we feel this is a very fair and equitable deal.”