by Nicholas Wurst, IAM/TCU Local 1089 (personal capacity)
On the night of January 17, 1,400 workers at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx called a strike, organizing a 24/7 picket line at both entrances to the workplace. The workers, members of Teamsters Local 202, were in negotiations with the company for a new contract. The workers wanted a $1 per hour raise and additional personal and sick time. The company only offered a 32 cent raise.
Hunts Point Produce market is the biggest wholesale market in the world, distributing 60% of produce to restaurants and grocery stores in NYC and key to the food supply chain of the Northeast. In addition, the company got $15 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans, which are supposed to be used by companies to keep workers employed, as part of the CARES Act stimulus package. This is one example of the massive amounts of money funneled to corporations which makes up the majority of the so-called “relief” bills.
The workers at Hunts Point Produce were key in continuing to supply food during the initial shortages of the spring due to the pandemic. Many of these workers contracted COVID-19, and 6 workers have died as a result. In addition to the insultingly low wage increase offered by the company, Hunts Point also stopped supplying PPE and sanitation stations months ago, according to the workers.
On the second night of the strike, January 18, the picket lines were attacked by about 50 police in riot gear. On a day dedicated to one of the main figures of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the strikers were blocking traffic to raise awareness, a time-honored tactic in the labor and civil rights movement, also popularized in various anti-police brutality tactics in recent years. 5 strikers were arrested. This was an attempt to intimidate the strike. During the strike the cops played their traditional role on a picket line; protecting the bosses profits by making sure the company could use scabs (temporary hires to break strikes) to cross picket lines and weaken the economic impact of the strike. This is another example of the police’s fundamental role of defending corporate control of the economy over the interests of the working class.
The strike sparked solidarity from the left and the labor movement nationally, and even internationally, with socialists and activists joining the picket line, collecting money, and donating food and supplies to the union and the strike effort. On Tuesday, an even more concrete example of labor solidarity was demonstrated, as a CSX train intending to deliver goods to the market was turned around. The strikers explained the situation to the train crew, who refused to make the delivery, declaring “We are Teamsters too!” (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, part of the Rail Conference of the Teamsters)
Negotiations resumed the very next day as the strike continued and gained more national attention. The following Friday, union leaders announced that a tentative agreement was reached.
After discussion on the proposed contract settlement, 97% of the union’s local membership voted for the agreement. The contract includes raises of 70 cents immediately, 50 cents in 2022, and 65 cents for lower paid workers or a $1,300 bonus for higher paid workers in 2023. At $1.85 over three years, it’s less than the $1 raise that workers demanded, but more than double what the company initially offered. The strike also successfully stopped a health care cost increase and won extra days off for the workers.
Workers and Black Lives Matter
Many of the hundreds of supporters who turned out to back up the strikers had been active participants in this past summer’s surge of anti-racist activism around the Black Lives Matter banner, and a majority of the Hunts Point workers are black and Latino natives of the Bronx. The brutal police attack on the strikers, the police present on the picket line, and the NYPDs long history of racist policing and harassment of anti-racist protests provide concrete examples of the common ground shared by the labor and anti-racist movements.
The capitalist class, and their servants in the police, profit from exploiting workers and doubly exploiting black and brown workers, enforcing that exploitation with racism and violence. If the anti-racist movement wants to take the fight to the police, we must also take the fight to the bosses who rely on the police force to defend their system. The power of the working class organized in workplaces, work sites, and on the streets can be crucial in stopping police attacks on communities. And if the labor movement gets serious about taking on the power of the corporations, unions will be faced with increased violence from the cops. Solidarity with union workers and defense of strikes against police and right wing attacks will be strongest when anti-racist activists and communities fighting racism are also in the struggle against corporate power. It’s key that socialist, anti-racist, and labor activists work to rebuild their historical ties weakened in recent decades and build a combined fight against exploitation and oppression of the whole working class, with a program fighting for higher pay, more jobs, public healthcare and housing, as well as a fight against racism in all forms.
COVID-19, Capitalism, and the Working Class
As talked about in previous articles from Independent Socialist Group, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis accelerated by COVID has reaffirmed Marxist analysis about the capitalist economy: society runs on the back of the working class, and profit is made by exploiting the working class. Like with the Stop and Shop strike of 2019, managers and scabs were unable to do the jobs of these supposedly “unskilled” workers, and food rotted on the shelves without the workers to handle it. Workers are what makes the economy run and workers should be able to run their workplaces democratically.
When the pandemic truly hit the US, corporations fought to keep workers at work to increase profits. This led to some workers being identified as “essential” and others being given tools to work from home. Initially, many workers took action to demand better PPE and safety measures. There have also been a few high-profile strikes during the lockdown like the Bath shipbuilders strike in Maine. In addition to these NY teamsters, Teamsters at a refinery in St. Paul went on strike, rail workers for United Pacific threatened a strike, auto parts workers in Ohio are on strike for union recognition, CTU teachers in Chicago are threatening a strike, and union nurses in the Massachusetts Nurses Association are picketing everyday at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts to draw attention to mismanagement and understaffing.
The Teamsters Local 202 strike in NYC threatened to shut down a key chokepoint for food delivery in the Northeast. By withholding their labor power, massive pressure was put on the corporation at Hunts Point. With just 1,400 workers, they put the bosses on the back foot, and once it was clear that management couldn’t break the strike with force or by isolating it, they were quick to come to the negotiating table and start making concessions. If this lesson is spread by the labor movement to all corners of the country, it can embolden workers in all industries to fight and win in 2021, especially as we face the life-and-death crises of public health, racism, and the economy.
A Victory, But Not a Complete One
It must be mentioned that while the strikers forced the company to give them double what they initially offered, more could have been won. Not only was the company under pressure to resolve the situation quickly, the union leadership was as well. Declaring victory even before the workers had seen the tentative agreement, and downplaying the differences between what had been won and what was initially demanded, the union leaders cut the strike short after only 6 days.
While any discussion of staying out for longer would have to be taken seriously and debated by the strikers, it was clear that the mood of the workers was militant and morale was high. Hundreds of community members came out to support, and over $30,000 was raised to provide supplies to the workers. If the strike had been taken further, more could have been won, providing an even bigger boost in confidence to the labor movement.
To win more from this strike and to help spread the gains and energy from the strike to the rest of the labor movement, coordinating job actions from Teamsters in other workplaces, and from other unions would be necessary. While many union leaders announced their solidarity in words; solidarity strikes, mass pickets, and rallies would have gained more for the workers at Hunts Point and also for other unions and working people taking action against big business.
We can make 2021 a year of workers struggle and anti-racist struggle, and take the lessons of the Hunts Point strike into every workplace and union in the US.