As the pandemic exposes low wages and unsafe conditions at food-distribution centers, workers are striking

On January 23, after a tense, week-long strike led by Teamsters Local 202, 1,400 employees of New York City’s massive Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market reached an agreement with management that includes the biggest raise ever won by Local 202’s bargaining unit. The victory was the latest in a series of actions by the Teamsters, as the pandemic has ignited long-simmering labor disputes at food-distribution centers across the country.

“I think the pandemic has raised the concerns of workers,” said Daniel Kane, Jr., president of Local 202, in an interview with Ag Insider. “Workers in general, have been losing ground in America but I think the pandemic has brung many of these issues to light. Workers are now saying that if we don’t fight now, when will we?”

Hunts Point market, the world’s largest wholesale produce market, is located in the south Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the country. Even before the pandemic, the neighborhood had one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country. And from March through September last year, SNAP enrollment in the Bronx rose by 65,000, the second highest rise in the city, and the number of people getting cash assistance rose by 21,000, the largest jump in the city.

On any given day the sprawling market complex serves 22 million people and is the main artery in the region’s food-distribution network. In addition to supplying 20,000 direct jobs, including 8,500 unionized workers, the market generates $5 billion in revenue annually.

The vast majority of the workforce is made up of people of color and immigrants who earn, on average, $30,000-$40,000 a year. Deemed essential, they have continued to work throughout the pandemic, even as the Bronx emerged as the city’s virus epicenter; six market workers have died of Covid-19 so far, and hundreds more have been infected.

Bruno Pena, a porter who has worked at the market for 32 years, says he contracted Covid-19 last spring and was forced to quarantine for two weeks. Although he was grateful that his case was mild, he says the virus is just another threat in a job that is inherently dangerous. In July, while climbing a ladder, he lost his footing and fell, injuring his arm and shoulder. “The job is kind of dangerous because we have to use the machines [forklifts] and many people get hurt,” he said. “Sometimes my arm still hurts but I got to continue to work because I got to pay the rent.”

The Hunts Point strike was the first at the market in 35 years. Management initially balked at the union’s request for a $1 increase in the hourly wage. But with staff shortages threatening to strangle the region’s food supply, management eventually acquiesced. Under the new contract, workers will get a minimum raise of 70 cents per hour in the first year, rising to a $1.85 increase over three years.

“People need to be respected and treated well,” said Leo Servedio, vice president of Teamsters Local 202.

The Hunts Point strike was part of a series of actions across the country by unionized food-distribution workers for higher pay and better workplace protections, both in general and specific to the pandemic. Led by the Teamsters, the push echoes the more spontaneous protests and general outcry that has arisen from other food-industry workers and their advocates—from meatpacking plants and farm fields to restaurants and food-delivery services—after the virus made it impossible to continue to ignore the neglect and abuse these “essential” workers had long endured.

Last July, 160 members of Teamsters Local Union 414 went on a week-long strike at the United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) distribution center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, after going without a contract since 2019. UNFI is the largest public grocery distributor in the country, servicing chains such as Whole Foods and Stop & Shop. The Teamsters reached an agreement with UNFI in August for a new four-year contract. That same month, workers with Teamsters Local 104 in Tucson, Arizona, threatened to strike against US Foods, the nation’s second-largest commercial food distributor, claiming it had failed to adhere to the CDC’s Covid-19 safety guidelines.

Then in November, about 100 truck drivers working for UNFI in New York’s Hudson Valley voted to strike, saying the company had refused to provide basic protective equipment including masks and hand sanitizer and also hadn’t disinfected their trucks in months. Also in November, some 70 drivers and warehouse workers struck against Cash-Wa Distributing, a food distributor in Fargo, North Dakota, saying that the company wasn’t doing enough to protect them from the virus.

The pandemic has created leverage for labor unions in other sectors, too. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, unions representing nurses and other healthcare workers “have seized on the pandemic fallout to organize new chapters and pursue contract talks for better conditions and benefits.”

“We wouldn’t be alive today if we didn’t have the union,” said Elizabeth Lalasz, a Chicago public hospital nurse and steward for National Nurses United, the country’s largest union of registered nurses, told the Times.

Standing outside the gates of Hunts Point market after he announced the victory, Kane emphasized the importance of the strike, and of solidarity, for essential workers.  “We appreciate people applauding and thanking essential workers but we had to keep our families fed as we fed the city,” he said. “You have to work together, fight together, dance together and smile together. That’s what we did.”

Amir Khafagy is a New York City-based journalist. He has contributed to The New Republic, Vice, Bloomberg, The Appeal, Prism, Jacobin, Curbed and In These Times.