When 1,400 laborers at the Hunts Point Produce Market, a 113-acre distribution hub in the Bronx, decided to strike earlier this month, their demands were simple: a $1 hourly raise and better health benefits. Their employer had offered them a 32 cent-per-hour increase, which the workers considered an insult. After all, they’d worked nonstop through a pandemic that had killed six of them.
“Our bosses don’t feel we’re essential workers—we’re only essential when they say we’re essential,” said William Brown, who has worked at the market for 21 years. “We’re showing them that they need us.”
In fact, all of New York City needs these produce market workers, whose average base wages had been between $18 and $21 an hour. Their labor keeps New Yorkers fed, as they distribute around 60 percent of the city’s fruits and vegetables.
Their decision to strike was a risk. “Every benefit in that contract was on the line if we lost—if we couldn’t hold this line, if we couldn’t keep people engaged,” said Daniel Kane, president of the produce workers’ union, Teamsters Local 202, during a speech at the picket. “We didn’t know if we were going to prevail.”
But they did prevail. Not only did their six-day strike win them concessions from their employer, but it became a labor and economic justice flashpoint. The Local 202 picket attracted hundreds of supporters nearly every day, garnered thousands of dollars in donations, and became a minor social media sensation. Their modest demands resonated with sympathizers across the country sick of the compounding injustices of the Covid-19 era, and their success has provided a boost to the militancy of the moment.
“This was about being counted, about standing up, about being out in the street,” said Kane. “That’s the only way that you can make real systemic change. And that’s what happened here.”
Whitney Witthaus, a public school teacher and member of the Labor Branch of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, heard about the Hunts Point Produce Market strike on Monday, January 18, a day after it had started. “So a few of us drove out there to ask the workers how we could help,” she said. “They told us they needed supporters to help show the boss that the strikers could stay out.” So they immediately got to work, sending out texts to the thousands of DSA members in the area, putting out calls for support on social media, and asking socialist elected officials to lend their solidarity.
Later, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, as the Local 202 strikers attempted to block trucks at the market, the police descended upon them, making six arrests. Videos of the swarming cops, some in riot gear and wielding batons, evoked the ongoing brutality activists have experienced at the hands of the NYPD since the Black Lives Matter resurgence in May. The images of the arrests paired with DSA’s calls to action rapidly spread the news of the produce workers’ cause. Supporters started to appear from across the region. Donations flowed in, and then multiplied when politicians like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders issued statements of solidarity.
The outpouring of support mirrored a type of direct-aid politicization that has blossomed in the Covid-19 era. In New York City, as across the country, communities have pooled their money to fund mutual-aid networks that have provided neighbors with needed supplies. To support the strike, DSA alone spent around $10,000 in donations, according to Witthaus, and material support came from as far as California, according to Local 202. Communities have also established eviction defense networks, made up of neighbors who, among other support, will physically block landlords from carrying out evictions during the pandemic; at Hunts Point, these same community groups, as well as activists, students, and fellow union members, began showing up nearly around the clock to help the workers keep a physical presence at the picket line, even as cops, including horse-mounted units, kept watch from a distance.
Meanwhile, the 202 members kept up the pressure: On Wednesday, they reportedly convinced a train with 21 cars filled with merchandise destined for the market to turn around. The engineer was a fellow Teamster.
Soon, the picket was the place to be. City Council members, state legislators, and mayoral candidates showed up to offer support. Ocasio-Cortez made a visit while Inauguration festivities were still going on in Washington, D.C., then returned two days later with actress Padma Lakshmi, who had helped spread information about the strike to her more than 770,000 Twitter followers.
By Friday evening, the picket line had grown into a community of protesters. Over a handful of bonfires, Local 202 members, clad in their yellow union jackets, mingled with the roughly 100 supporters who braved the near-freezing weather. Music blared, and workers’ children played among the masked crowd. Around 8:30 pm, Kane, the 202 president, grabbed a microphone and said that the union and management had reached a tentative agreement. The announcement was met with raucous cheers. The next morning, the union rank and file would vote to ratify a 70 cent hourly raise, which will increase to $1.85 over three years, plus additional contributions of 40 cents per hour toward employee health care—a significant win.
Eddie Gill, a 43-year veteran of the produce market who was part of the last Local 202 strike in 1986, was delighted but unsurprised at the union victory. “Without us, there is no them inside,” he said, pointing toward the market. “So I knew this wasn’t going to last very long.” The outside support, however, “that I was surprised about,” he said. “To see these kids, who came from Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan to come here to be with us, that was the best.”
Tommy Hayes, who has worked at the market for four years, told me, “Half of these people out here are just sympathizers, people showing solidarity.” He gestured toward a group of tables set up at a far end of the picket, overflowing with snacks, hot meals, coffee, water, and hand warmers. “There’s like, 40, 50 pizzas over there, and it’s all donations from people who came to support us.” At that moment, a delivery car drove up with a stack of about a dozen pies.
“When you step up and fight for something you strongly believe in, and it’s on the side of right, people will come, and they will fight with you,” Hayes said.
With the union victory, both supporters and the Hunts Point Produce Market workers are eager to keep fighting.
“We keep showing up,” said Witthaus of DSA. She pointed to other essential workers who are organizing for justice in their workplaces across the country, especially her fellow teachers who set the pace for a new wave of labor militancy in 2018–19, and who are now demanding coronavirus safety measures and decent pay in Chicago; Pittsburgh; and Bellevue, Wash. “We had to prove to Local 202 that we knew how to stand in solidarity with them, and I hope that other workers across the city know that they can count on our support.”
“It could not be done without all of you, without all of you being engaged, and caring about one another,” Kane told the picket crowd after announcing the contract agreement. “I’m hopeful that that spark will be lit in our country.”
Kane ended his speech with a promise of solidarity: “We will be at your picket line, too.”