On Newtown Creek in industrial North Brooklyn, the Buckeye Pipeline emerges from the ground into an access terminal — essentially a filling station — on the property of United Metro Energy Corporation (UMEC). The facility also receives fuel from barges that unload on their icy docks. UMEC delivers millions of gallons per day in petroleum products that fuel hospitals, schools, residential apart- ment buildings, the MTA and more. These fuels, carcinogenic and highly flammable, have to be handled carefully before they are dispersed around the city. A mistake on the job could result not only in personal injury, but in an explosion or major contamination of the surrounding waterways.
The 21 highly-trained men who used to do this dangerous work now find themselves out in the cold on the other side of the chain-link fence that marks the private property of UMEC.
They are in the 10th month of a strike that has no clear end in sight. Billionaire owner John Catsimatidis has hired less-experienced scabs whom he pays $5 more an hour rather than agree to their union’s demand for parity pay with what other oil terminal operators and mechanics earn in the New York City region, the main prerogative for the strike. They are paid $27 an hour, 10 dollars less than the industry average.
On Feb. 1, the first Tuesday after a snowstorm, five striking workers and a couple of supporters stood under a sign that read: “John Catsimatidis and UMEC: Stop Hurting NYC Families.” The wind blowing off the creek made the already frigid temperatures unbearable. Most of the men had to take respites in idling cars. “Every day, someone is here on the line showing that there’s a presence here, seven days a week from seven in the morning to five in the evening,” Strike Captain Andre Solyn told the Indy from his spot on the line, eyes on the oil terminal across the way.
“Well, it’s hard enough,” said Dennis Spence, a truck mechanic who’s worked at the company for seven years. “Not much hope, but you have to keep going. You have to fight for what you want.”
Three years ago, UMEC laborers decided to unionize with the Teamsters when the company started consolidating positions.
Some of the employees had worked union jobs in the past and knew what they were missing out on. “This company doesn’t appreciate us. I was in a union before, not here. That’s why I wanna be in a union: because they protect you,” said Mortadi Redouane.
“I’ve been doing the midnight inventory working from ten at night to seven in the morning for the last three years without night differential pay,” added Ivan Areizaga, a terminal operator who’s been with the company for five years.
In negotiating the workers’ first contract, Teamsters reps demanded the same protections their workers receive across the country: Parity pay, paid holidays off, night-differential pay, overtime pay, pensions and yearly raises.
After over two years of bitter negotiation, the workers went on strike, hoping to change Catsimatidis’ mind. He said the union’s demands would put him out of business.
The billionaire mogul owns Gristedes Foods, a grocery chain in Manhattan; the Red Apple Group, a real estate and aviation company; and WABC-AM radio in New York City, which features rightwing show hosts such as Sean Hannity, Curtis Sliwa and Catsimatidis himself. He held a Long Island fundraising party for Kathy Hochul in the Hamptons, says Demos Demopolous, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters 553 and the leading negotiator on the UMEC contract, who in an act of one-man protest stood in the driveway demanding Catsimatidis sign the union’s proposed contract.
UMEC did not respond to a request for comment on strike negotiations.
Nearly all of the workers on strike are immigrants and all except one are supporting multi-children families. Solyn is putting two of his children through college. Mortadi wants better health insurance for his young family. When asked why he would accept a job that paid so little, Solyn said, “When you’re an immigrant, you don’t have the luxury of a lot of choices even if you’re qualified. So you take what you get until better can be done.”
Initially, each worker was eligible for six months of unemployment. Then they had to rely on a strike fund supported by Teamsters locals across the country. Strikers who have been able to pick up side jobs receive less from the fund.
“To this day we’re still paying the strikers from the donations we collected,” said Demopolous. The fund, though, is running low, and now the strikers are asking that supporters donate to a GoFundMe.
One ray of hope for the strikers lies in the fact that the workers’ boycott is currently defined by the National Labor Relations Board as an economic strike, but if the board grants claims of Unfair Labor Practice (ULPs) filed by the Teamsters, the strike will become “a ULP strike, which occurs when workers are striking in response to an unfair labor practice. … Think retaliatory firing of workers that are organizing or if the company is refusing to bargain in good faith,” says NYC-based labor organizer Devon Gilliams. “Under an economic strike, the employer doesn’t have to dismiss the scabs [when the strike is concluded] — they just have to wait until those positions ‘open up.’” Which could be never, says Gilliams. But “in a ULP strike, workers have to be returned to their previous positions at the end of the strike. They have to dismiss the scabs.”
Oil companies bid on contracts with the city. Catsimatidis often wins with low bids made possible by low wages, so the union also has an open claim with the City Comptroller’s office, who ensures that bidding companies pay their employees prevailing wage rates, says the union.
As soon as all 21 UMEC workers went on strike last April, Catsimatidis began firing them, one by one, until eight were gone — all of whom still participate in strike activities. Solyn, strike captain and rabble rouser, was the first to be fired.
The scabs that keep the oil moving in and out of UMEC are not certified to work the lot and its docks, say the strikers. The year-long certification process, which all striking workers have undergone, is required by the city, they say. “They’re not qualified to do this job,” says Solyn. “This is downright dangerous,” says Solyn. “You could have a big environmental impact there,” he said, referring to an oil leak. When Solyn was hired, he had to learn the piping systems, valves and mechanics specific to UMEC’s terminal.
Other unions, such as the UPS workers with Teamsters Local 804, the United Federation of Teachers, the Amazon Labor Union, 1199 SEIU, and the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC), have shown solidarity on the picket line. The Democratic Socialists of America have also aided the strikers’ efforts. They made a list of clients serviced by UMEC, which indicated that 44% of the corporation’s revenue comes from residential buildings and households and its most lucrative customer is Flushing Hospital, followed by two gas stations — a Sunoco at 1188 Metropolitan Ave. and a Gulf at 53–26 Van Dam St.
The striking workers that right now, solidarity is more important than ever. “This is a bigger fight than us,” says Solyn, who is encouraged to be a part of an upswing in the U.S. labor movement. “Wages have been stagnant for a long time … It’s worth it to pursue a fight where labor and capital can coexist. Now the relationship is totally one-sided in that the labor is being taken advantage of. We need representation.”
Readers interested in supporting the strike can go to 500 Kingsland Ave. on Tuesdays from 9–10 a.m. to participate in weekly picket rallies. For more info, including the strike GoFundMe, visit New York Teamsters on Facebook, @TeamstersJC16 on Twitter or @nyteamsters Instagram.
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