NEW YORK, N.Y.—Two days after their strike reached its one-year anniversary, workers at the United Metro Energy Corp. fuel terminal in Brooklyn rallied at City Hall to demand that the city cancel its contracts with the company.
The city Department of Citywide Administrative Services is United Metro’s biggest customer and has paid it more than $33 million in the past year, Teamsters Local 553 Secretary-Treasurer Demos Demopoulos told LaborPress before the Apr. 21 rally.
“These are the immigrant essential workers who risked their health to get our city through the pandemic,” Demopoulos told the crowd of about 75 strikers, Teamsters, and elected officials. “Now they need our city’s help, and Mayor Adams should stand with them, not their billionaire owner.”
“The city should not be doing business with a union-busting billionaire,” City Councilmember Sandy Nurse (D-Brooklyn) said.
The city’s contract with United Metro is for delivery of heating oil to buildings, primarily for the Department of Education, with a bit for the Human Resources Administration as well, according to the mayor’s office.
“Mayor Adams believes workers have the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and benefits,” a City Hall spokesperson said in a statement to LaborPress. But, he added, “this contract has been in place for almost a year, and is in compliance with all city procurement rules.”
The about 25 terminal operators, mechanics, and service technicians working at United Metro’s terminal on the Greenpoint waterfront went on strike Apr. 19, 2021 after failing to win a first contract more than two years after they voted to join Local 553.
“We’re paid $8 an hour less than the industry standard. We’re essential workers. We worked through the pandemic with no additional pay,” Ivan Areizaga of the Bronx, a terminal operator for five years, told LaborPress.
Before the strike, he’d been working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift for “three straight years with no rotation,” he says. “That’s why we decided to go union. We wanted fair work practices and fair pay.”
United Metro Energy owner John Catsimatidis disputes the union’s chronology.
“UMEC signed a contract in February of 2021, with Local 553 with the current members and 60 days later WITHOUT any notice to sit down and discuss, in a power move, the Union called these new members just signed up 553, out on strike,” he said in a statement to LaborPress. “UMEC never locked out the employees.”
A spokesperson for Teamsters Joint Council 16 told LaborPress that the February 2021 contract was with bulk fuel drivers, a separate group of workers from the ones on strike.
“I have always welcomed back any employee that wanted to come back to work,” Catsimatidis said. “UMEC has offered significant and fair wage and benefit INCREASES, including fully paid family health insurance (they have always had health insurance through UMEC’s policy in the past).”
Demopoulos told LaborPress that he hoped to reach an agreement to end the strike, but that talks have been proceeding “at a snail’s pace.”
“They’ve recognized the union, but they’re not going to pay the area standard,” he says. Wages, benefits, pension, and vacation time remain unresolved.
On April 15, at the first negotiating session in six weeks, Demopoulos says Catsimatidis “stormed out of the room” after the union leader refused to sign a pledge that it would not file any more unfair-labor-practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.
“If I was told by the lawyers in writing that I could debate Demos publicly so all the truth gets out, I would do so tomorrow morning,” Catsimatidis said in his statement. He said that the city terminating its contracts with United Metro would only hurt current workers.
The NLRB has issued a complaint, roughly analogous to an indictment, against United Metro for firing eight of the striking workers. If the board rules in favor of the union, that would define the walkout as a “unfair labor practice” strike instead of a “economic” strike, and thus bar the company from hiring strikebreakers as permanent replacement workers.
“We’ve been fired without a reason,” Andre Soleyn, a father of three who was “permanently replaced” on the first day of the strike, told the rally.
Catsimatidis, a billionaire supermarket magnate, could’ve easily ended the strike by paying workers a few extra dollars, said Assemblymember Emily Gallagher (D-Brooklyn). “It really seems out of sheer cruelty to punish people for speaking up.”
“We’ve reached a year already. We’re still waiting,” says Areizaga, who has two children still at home and had his health insurance cut off less than a week into the strike. “All we want is equal.”