The Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market in the Bronx supplies the majority of New York City’s fruits and vegetables. It is the largest wholesale produce market of its kind in the world, with more than 210 million packages of produce passing through it each year. Had the market shut down during the pandemic, the crisis would have been much, much worse for the city’s residents — there were already hours-long lines to get into grocery stores, but imagine if those stores were empty. That this didn’t happen is thanks to the workers who risked contracting COVID-19 to transport the produce.
Now, these workers have walked off the job. At 12:01 AM on Sunday, January 17, some 1,400 employees at the Hunts Point produce market went on strike — from warehouse workers to truck drivers, the strike encompasses every member of the union. The workers, members of Teamsters Local 202, decided to strike after contract negotiations broke down over a wage dispute. The workers want a $1-an-hour raise, plus a 60 cent hourly raise to fund health care benefits, while Hunts Point is only offering 32 cents.
“The majority of the workers have an average base salary between $18 and $21 an hour,” reads a statement released by the union on Saturday, January 16. “Employers in the market, who collectively bill billions of dollars in annual sales, received more than $15 million in forgivable PPP loans during the pandemic.” According to Local 202 president Dan Kane, the striking workers make between $30,000 and $40,000.
This is the first strike at the Hunts Point market in thirty-five years, though the union came close to taking such action in 2012 and 2015, again in response to differences in proposed raises and benefits.
Workers in the United States used to strike in the millions — around 10 percent of the workforce withheld their labor in 1946 — but strike activity has drastically diminished in recent decades. 2020 saw only around ten major work stoppages, with “major” defined as involving 1,000 or more workers; 2019 saw around twenty-five. The strike at Hunts Point marks 2021’s first new major work stoppage.
Late Monday night, the NYPD arrested several strikers for blocking traffic — the workers were peacefully protesting, refusing to let scab trucks transport the produce. Hunts Point has said it is working with the NYPD and “a private security firm” to keep the market open.
“It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise today,” said Kane in a statement. “These are the essential workers who went to work every day through the worst of the pandemic to feed New York. All they are asking for is a dollar-an-hour raise so they can feed their families too. The fact that they were arrested on Martin Luther King Day reminds us what side of history we are on.”
In the hours before the strike began, the market’s cooperative board, which represents thirty produce firms and is responsible for around 60 percent of New York City’s produce, released a statement on the negotiations. Citing the Bronx’s 40 percent unemployment rate, the board noted its pride at keeping “our union workers — the vast majority of whom live right here in the Bronx — working and on payroll with full health benefits,” adding that its current wage and benefit offer is “a multiple of the current annual cost of living.”
For the Hunts Point employees, working through the pandemic has meant risking their lives. According to Local 202 vice president Leonardo Servedio, some 300 to 400 workers have contracted COVID-19, and six have died.
“It’s not good enough just to clap for them, and say they’re essential,” said Kane, Local 202’s president. “When they asked for a decent raise, a fair number, they should be told, ‘Yes, you can have that, and thank you.’”
The strike is taking place at 772 Edgewater Road in the Bronx, with picket lines running around the clock. If you live in the New York area and would like to support the workers, round up a few friends today and head to the strike line.