Hundreds of workers at The Bronx’s Hunts Point Produce Market are still on strike after negotiations broke down over a $1 an hour raise.
But for many workers, who earn between $18 and $21 an hour on average, they’re seeking more than a pay hike.
“Just say ‘Thank you.’ Don’t say we should be lucky to have a job,” said Hiram Montalvo, a “box man” who unloads trucks. “Say thank you that we’re actually coming to work and risking our lives so that they can take care of their families as well.”
The workers, who are members of Teamsters Local 202, voted to go on strike on midnight Sunday after talks over an hourly raise disintegrated last week. Management offered a 32-cents-an-hour boost.
The strike, the first at the Hunts Point market in 35 years, could impact the region’s produce supply amid the pandemic, workers contend.
“Hands up don’t shoot!” We condemn the arrests of several peaceful strikers on the @Teamsters picket line tonight at Hunts Point Market. These essential workers deserve their $1 raise pic.twitter.com/PZhdvUe20v— Teamsters JC 16 (@TeamstersJC16) January 19, 2021
Tensions escalated shortly after midnight on Tuesday, when more than 300 police officers in riot gear broke the picket line and made five arrests.
Nearly 400 workers were at the picket line when the police arrived, allegedly over a noise complaint, according to a union official not authorized to speak publicly.
Video captured at the scene shows a police vehicle blaring an NYPD recording: “You are unlawfully in the roadway and are obstructing vehicular traffic.”
NYPD officers have been at the strike since it began. At a kick-off rally on Sunday, union officials thanked them for “keeping us safe” at the picket line.
“Our battle’s not with the NYPD, but we think they could handle this more delicately. Let’s put it that way,” Local 202 President Daniel Kane Jr. told THE CITY Tuesday morning. “We think it was a bit of an overreaction.”
The NYPD did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment, nor did a representative for Hunts Point Produce Market.
More than 210 million pounds of produce pass through the market each year, reaching the city’s five boroughs and the greater metropolitan region, according to the market’s website. Hunts Point boasts supplying 60% of the city’s produce.
While some trucks bearing produce and other goods are passing through and entering the market, many of the workers in charge of unloading the vehicles are participating in the strike, said Manuel Soriano, who works at the market’s trucking department.
“What we’re trying to do is block the entry, to make sure no one gets through — that’s our goal, to show how essential we are to this company, how hard we work and all that we produce to make sure people have food on the table,” Soriano said in Spanish.
Workers who spoke to THE CITY said that the decision to go on strike was not taken lightly, but that management’s reluctance to give them a $1 hourly raise pushed them over the edge.
“We’re not asking for very much, and if they would have gave that, then all of this right here could have been prevented. Everybody would have been working, everybody would have been happy,” warehouse worker Ismael Cancela told THE CITY.
“All the fruits and vegetables that everyone eats, everyone continued to eat ’cause we was out here,” he added, noting that the staff worked throughout the pandemic, only to get the 32 cent raise offer.
“Yeah, we were worried — but we did it. And now they come to us with this, and it’s disgraceful. It’s disgraceful.”
‘People Begging for Crumbs’
The picket line has attracted a host of elected officials and candidates for city office.
A kick-off rally on Sunday morning was attended by Assemblymember Amanda Septimo (D-The Bronx), who represents the area, and State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Brooklyn and Staten Island), who serves on the labor committee. Council members Vanessa Gibson (D-The Bronx) and Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), who are running for Bronx borough president and city comptroller, respectively, also showed.
“I am sick and tired of working people begging for crumbs,” Gibson said on Sunday. “One dollar should be the floor.”
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) and Democratic mayoral hopeful Andrew Yang joined the picket line on Monday afternoon, while another mayoral candidate, civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, came on Tuesday morning.
Workers, who have not sat down with management since before the strike began, are eager to resolve the wage dispute, Kane said.
“We’re always open to negotiations, because we’re coming from a position where the workers would like to be dealt with fairly to move on from this issue that they committed their lives’ work to,” he said on Tuesday.
Union officials noted that 10 workers at the market, many of them fellow Teamsters, died during the pandemic.
Workers who spoke with THE CITY said a $1 hourly raise could help them support their families during tough times — and help them feel appreciated at work.
“We’re on the frontline, we still out here,” said porter Raymond Kendrick. “Then why are y’all disputing it? Give us the dollar. What’s the problem?”
Cancela, who’s worked at the market for 28 years, said that a raise could help him pay for his health care. Montalvo, who’s worked there for two and a half years, said it would help his family, including his young children.
He brought his two sons, ages 9 and 11, to Sunday’s rally “to show them that hard-working people deserve respect, and that if you don’t like how you’re being treated, you have to go out and fight for it.”