By Kate King 

Produce handlers and delivery drivers at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx are on strike after contract negotiations with ownership broke down.

Hunts Point supplies 25% of New York City's fresh produce, Mayor Bill de Blasio's office said. About 1,400 members of the Teamsters Local 202 voted to go on strike last weekend, according to the union's president, Danny Kane.

Mr. Kane said the workers are demanding a $1 hourly wage increase plus an additional 60 cents an hour to cover increased health-care costs. He said ownership's counteroffer of a 92-cent hourly increase in the first year of the three-year contract was unacceptable given the health and safety risks many workers have endured during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Our workers can't be protected by staying home. We have to show up," Mr. Kane said. "You have to put your mask on and wash your hands and hope for the best."

The two sides resumed active negotiations Wednesday afternoon, said Stephen Katzman, owner of S. Katzman Produce and co-president of Hunts Point's cooperative board. The union declined to comment on whether talks had resumed.

This is the first strike by Teamsters workers at Hunts Point in 35 years, Mr. Kane said. Workers are picketing outside the market, and six were arrested Monday night and issued summonses for disorderly conduct and obstructing the roadway, according to a New York Police Department spokesman.

The market, which operates as a cooperative with 29 owners, handles 210 million packages of produce annually. Workers unload shipments of food pallets, repackage them for distribution and drive delivery trucks to retail, grocery and restaurant customers in the city and across the greater New York region.

Mr. Katzman, co-chairman of the ownership's labor negotiating committee, said the market's business has suffered during the pandemic due to restaurant closures and the withdrawal of two major grocery-store chains, Fairway Market and Best Yet Market. The number of packages coming into Hunts Point was down 10% in 2020 from 2019, he said.

Mr. Katzman said the market and its members avoided layoffs and spent $3 million on personal-protective equipment and other safety measures during the pandemic.

"Our expenses went up tremendously during this time," he said. "We kept everybody working. Cash flow became a problem when restaurants closed with no warning. We appreciated everybody, and we did everything that we could to keep everyone safe."

Before the strike, Mr. Katzman said the owners' latest proposal would have raised total hourly compensation 92 cents in the first year of the contract, 94 cents in the second year and 97 cents the third year. Employers would continue to contribute $15,000 annually toward each employee's health-care coverage.

A spokesman said the mayor's office hopes the dispute will be resolved quickly, but that there are enough other suppliers in the tri-state area to avoid significant disruptions to the city's food supply in the event of a protracted strike.

Mr. Katzman said he thinks a closure of Hunts Point would pose a major disruption to the city's food supply, but that the market remains open for business during the strike. Owners are using supervisors, family members, temporary workers and some union members who have crossed the picket line to keep the produce moving, he said.

New York City Councilman Rafael Salamanca, who is running for Bronx borough president, has called for a federal mediator to assist with labor negotiations. Several mayoral candidates and other New York politicians, including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have appeared at the picket line this week to express support for the union workers.

Most union workers at Hunts Point earn $18.57 an hour in base pay, or about $40,000 annually, and receive health and retirement benefits, Mr. Kane said. About 70% of workers live in the Bronx, which has been hard-hit by both the pandemic and economic crisis. Many workers contracted Covid-19 and at least six died from it, he said.

John Sorrentino, 43 years old, a tractor-trailer driver at Hunts Point who lives in Pelham Bay, said his mentor died of coronavirus last spring. Mr. Sorrentino, who earns $21 an hour, said he feels insulted and devalued by ownership's resistance to the union's wage-increase demands.

"I know what I deserve and what I should earn," he said. "I feed New York. When you go to your grocer tonight and you get your apple and your bananas and your organic kale, you can think about me and the drivers at Hunts Point Produce Market that bring it in every day and work through a pandemic."

Write to Kate King at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 21, 2021 10:00 ET (15:00 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.