‘What I want for me, I want for you’: Hunts Point Produce Market Workers Talk About Why They Went on Strike

The 1,400 workers enjoy a better life because of their union. After working without hazard pay through the first 10 months of the pandemic, they were determined to wield their collective power to win respect and a real pay raise from their bosses.

Amba Guerguerian Jan 25, 2021

The picket line wearing a sign that reads, “STOP war on workers” and NYPD vans in the background.

The 1,400 workers at Hunts Point Market, the largest produce distribution market in the country, went on strike the night of Sunday, January 17. They walked out of the warehouse to win a better contract after risking their lives as essential workers since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Management offered them a minimal $0.32 per hour raise. Their demands? Bring members who are making $18.75 an hour up to $20 an hour, give everyone else a $1 an hour raise, and maintain their healthcare coverage at no additional costs to the workers. This was the first time the union, Teamsters Local 202, went on strike since at Hunts Point 1986. 

The warehouse employees have worked throughout the pandemic without hazard pay. According to union leadership, six workers have died and more than 300 have been infected with the virus, leaving some unable to work. 

The strike ended on Saturday with the approval of a new three-year contract that provides a $1.85 pay raise — a $0.70 cent increase in their hourly pay in the first year, $0.50 cents the second and $0.65 cents in the third year and an end to any out-of-pocket payments for family health care. For the lowest-paid workers, it represents a 9.87% pay increase over the life of the deal.

During the six-day strike, union members stayed on the picket line for shifts averaging 10 to 14 hours on the roadside in front of the warehouses, located where the Bronx and East Rivers meet. Their picket was supported by workers from other unions, elected officials led by Bronx congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, labor activists from the Democratic Socialists of America and various other community groups. Food, music, hand warmers, and firewood was plentiful.

The Indypendent had the chance to speak with a few striking members on Friday. Here’s what they had to say.

Darren grilling for the picketers.

Darren Brenner, 35 years with the union and 31  with the warehouse. 

I’ve been working here my whole life. It’s my livelihood. It’s what I do. It’s what I do for a living. It’s what keeps my family fed. It’s what keeps us healthy. Without the union, you wouldn’t want to work in here. Believe me. 

And I got health care. The most important thing. Anyone know if you get sick—I’ve had surgeries. I’ve had everything. Kids were born under the union. Thank God. But it’s because I come here and I work every day. 

I was a supervisor. At the beginning I was a warehouseman—they call it a porter—doing orders and unloading trucks and all that. Then I was a foreman for 27 years. Now I’m a warehouseman again. They sold my company—they went out of business—and I had to start all over again. 

Each different warehouse has a different owner [the market is a cooperative]. Not everybody you see here works for the same company. We all work at Hunts Point Market. This is the largest fresh produce market in the world. 

There are some people who did cross the line. I’m ashamed to say they did. I know I need to be out here because I need to fight for what’s fair. And I think a $1 increase is not a lot to ask for. To offer us $0.32 is a shame. 

We worked through the whole pandemic. I got sick, I brought it home, I got my family sick. No hazard pay. Thank God we’re alright. We all recovered. But some people didn’t. There’s some people I used to work alongside with that aren’t here anymore. We got guys who died and guys who can’t work anymore because of the sickness. One guy has blood clots all over his body. He’s been out for months. Don’t know if he’ll ever be able to work again. And you’re gonna say, “Oh here’s, $0.32?” Come on. Let’s be fair.

And I don’t blame all the houses, but they’re all together. So if they’re all standing together, we have to stand together. 

We had a meeting last Saturday. They said, hey this is what the owners are offering you. We said, “Hey, are you willing to go back in there for $0.32? Or you could stand your ground and we could fight and see what happens.” So we voted. I think it was like 100 to 1. 

But what kills me is that some of the people who were like “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” have gone back in there. Shame on you.

I’d love to get back to work. I’m not getting paid to sit out here. My wife is unemployed right now. It’s a struggle. I have a wife, two kids. But I know the majority are still striking. They’re asking people they’ve let go, they’re asking retirees, to come in and work for them. 

This is the first time we’ve struck. We’ve come close before. A few years ago, we were on the platform waiting to walk out and they came to a decision.

All we want is we’re fighting for a fair wage, for a fair day’s pay. We work hard here. We work in all weather. You think this is cold? This is nothing. We’ve been out here when you spit and it freezes before it hits the ground. All we’re looking for is an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Nothing more.

Thomas Hayes, Business Agent and Trustee at Local 202. Twenty-two years with the union and 24 with the warehouse. 

We are striking for better working conditions and pay. We’re not asking for  a lot. Until we get an increase or they make it seem like we will find some common ground, I will be here 10 to 12 hours a day. I’ve been here 10 to 12 hours every day since Sunday. The people have been beautiful. We’ve had people showing us solidarity and the food is non-stop! You can find any kind of international food at the table. Anything you want is there. 

Walking up to the picket, one was met with a table full of a variety of warm food and other supplies for staying out in the cold.

And the people are supporting us. We had the nurses out here, concrete workers, firemen. It’s been phenomenal and I’ve got nothing but gratitude in my attitude for the people that are sharing our plight. A burden shared is a burden lessened. And we will be here until the end. A day longer is a day stronger.

I am very hopeful about the outcome. If we don’t get what we want, we’ll get what we need. 

The union changed my life. It does for me what I wasn’t able to do for myself. I’m able to provide for my family, I’ve got bigger and better things. I come from a poor neighborhood. I know what food stamps are.

I can take care of my family and feel good about what I’m doing. And I want that for each and every one of these people. What I want for me, I want for you, also. 

Behind William are are the rows and rows of “houses” where the men normally work.

William Brown, warehouseman and union member for 21 years. 

We’re out here because we’re looking for our respect. These owners feel they can step on us. 

We worked through this pandemic from start to now. We ask for a pay increase and that’s a problem? They don’t feel our work is necessary? They feel they can move this place without us, which is impossible and they know it. They’re just cheap, basically. They want the work done and don’t want to pay us for it.

Our bosses are rich. Very rich. And they got $15 million from the government, an unforgivable loan, and we got nothing. Let’s put it like that. They got the loan. We got nothing.  We have no clue where it went. But we know they got it. 

We’re not “essential” until they say we are. That’s the way they do it. They feel we’re nothing. 

I believe we’re gonna win. I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve seen these owners. They like their money. When their money’s not coming in, that bothers them. And they know—but they don’t wanna admit—that we’re making that money for them. 

This is the only way we can talk to them and let them know we mean business. We risked our lives out here in this pandemic. We risked our families’ lives and we get nothing? They step on us. We’re nothing to them.

Stand up and fight. Don’t let nobody walk over you. If they walk over you now, they’re gonna keep doing it forever. You gotta stand up some time. 

Alvaro in front of ‘Scabby the Rat,’ NYC’s symbol of unionized labor, who holds a sign that reads “one dollar per hour for Teamster power!”

Alvaro Mendez, 23 years in the union and 50 at the warehouse.

I started working here when I was 26 with three brothers in the refrigerator section. My two brothers died. I stayed working. 

Now I work in maintenance, in houses all over the market. If there’s snow, we clean it so that the trucks can enter with no accidents. At night, sometimes the lights go out and I have to fix it. If there’s a bathroom that doesn’t work, they call me. So that people don’t have problems!

I know almost everyone here. I’ve been here a long time. Normally the union helps with whatever we need. Right now the problem is because of the virus. I am here to support my fellow union members because some of them are earning very low wages! And more than the dollar, they need health insurance!

A dollar to the bosses is nothing, but it means a lot to the workers. And we do everything to make this place run. 

We all work different jobs and have different salaries but we are here to support each other. 

Even this interview is important because it’s helping us, we’re all helping each other. And look at all this food and supplies everyone brought to support us! What’s missing here? Nothing.

It’s just like in the supermarkets all over New York City, where you have everything you need. And it all comes from here. Vegetables, fruits, nuts. It all comes from here. From China, Colombia and it all comes here. We unpack it and distribute it and we just want fair pay. 

Francisco, the Teamsters bus, and a poster that reads “No justice, no peas.”

Francisco Flores, Supervisor, 27 years at the warehouse and with the union.

We are out here for some appreciation for us taking care of the city, taking care of the bosses during this past year.

We’ve been through so much. We’ve had friends die, people get sick. Can’t see your loved ones. For us to win this and to get the appreciation of the owners would mean the world to us. We’ve never had to go through this before.

The last strike was in 1986. That’s 35 years ago. We’ve always been able to work things out. 

Multiple fires burned constantly to keep workers and their supporters warm.

I think they’re taking advantage of the pandemic to act like they can’t pay us better. They’re still bringing in profit. 

I’m honored to provide the city with food. Whether the bosses appreciate us or not, I know the people of the city do. I take pride in that but at the same time I want to be thanked for coming in, for not taking the time of and staying home even though we’ve got families, we’ve got kids. I go home every day and I gotta basically get naked before walking in the door. 

They’re giving us a medical but not a real raise. Or we could have taken the money from the medical, added it to the raise, but make the difference up ourselves on the medical. Either way, we’re not winning. We’re paying something out of our pockets. 

We eat check to check. Most people don’t have money saved, especially poor people. They’re sitting on their cushions. 

I come out here [to the picket line] every day from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the morning. I come out every day. If this is day six, I’ve been out here for six days. 

It’s my first time and I’m loving it. It’s almost like we are having a good time. We’re barbecuing, got music, enjoying everybody’s company, getting to meet new people, doing this interview. 

I love meeting the young generation. I want them to know what a union is and what it can do for you. You individually might be able to talk to your boss and get a raise, but the next person might not be that lucky. Or maybe they don’t even have the courage to ask. We’re trying to take care of everybody. Everybody working in the same place should get the same treatment. 

All workers should be unionized. Like what Bernie Sanders says, take care of the working man. We are the ones that make this country move. So just throw us a little crumb. You guys are still gonna be rich.

I love the support from the community, the whole city. The politicians, the nurses, the local unions that have passed by dropping off stuff to support our cause, thank you. And we will stand with you for anything in the future. 

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