New York, NY – During the height of the pandemic, André Soleyn and his co-workers at United Metro Energy Corporation [UMEC] fuel terminal in Brooklyn were celebrated as essential frontline heroes. Now, eight months into their strike for a fair contract, and less than two weeks before Christmas, the 55-year-old married father of three says billionaire owner John Catsimatidis has transformed into a union-buster and workers are feeling like yesterday’s trash.
“You can’t do this type of work from home,” Soleyn told LaborPress outside New York City’s famed Smith & Wollensky steakhouse on Monday Dec. 13. Catsimatidis enjoys an open table at the upscale chophouse located at Third Ave. and 49th Street and UMEC strikers organized with Teamsters Local 553 since 2019, have taken to demonstrating outside in an effort to raise awareness about the more than two-year battle to win their first contract.
“You can’t ensure that trucks get loaded safely, you can’t take products from a barge or a pipeline from home in a safe manner,” Soleyn continued. “We were considered essential workers then and as soon as the pandemic seemed to be lifting, we were considered disposable. The job itself is essential — but the people are not. We’re disposable.”
Soleyn was the first Local 553 striker to get the axe immediately after the strike was called on April 19. Seven others have been similarly terminated and permanently replaced since then.
“[Catsimatidis] is definitely trying to bust the union,” the UMEC terminal operator says. “He’s making it personal. He realizes that he has bigger fish to fry than just this union. He wants to get the whole industry involved just to break us up.”
Catsimatidis, the supermarket/real estate/aviation mogul and radio talk show host who once ran for mayor of New York City on a tough guy anti-crime platform aimed at shielding voters from “the hoodlums,” alleges a pro-labor record in business and says his company has made “significant concessions” to Local 553 at the bargaining table.
“Those are not real concessions,” Soleyn says. “We’ve been grossly underpaid for many years. Adding 10 cents…70 cents to a salary is not a concession. That’s more of an insult than a concession.”
According to Teamsters Local 553 Secretary-Treasurer Demos Demopoulos , UMEC is actually paying its employees — those one-time “essential heroes” — far below area standards.
Soleyn, for instance, was reportedly making just $26 an hour at UMEC, when workers at other fuel companies in the city were earning $10 more doing the same job.
“[Catsimatidis] got away with this for so many years,” Soleyn says. “All we’re asking for is just what’s normal. Nothing excessive. [Catsimatidis] should reconsider what he thinks is a normal offer.”
Catsimatidis dismisses charges he’s been underpaying his employees as “untrue” and says he was “shocked” when Local 553 went on strike last April after two years of fruitless bargaining.
“If you take all the people on Long Island, all the other companies…we are within the wages all the other companies are paying with the pay raise we already offered to them,” Catsimatidis told LaborPress this week. “We have offered them pay increases to meet whatever Long Island is already.”
But Demopoulos says the last bargaining session did not go well and the two sides remain far apart.
“I represent workers in Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Long Island,” Demopoulos told LaborPress. “They all get paid the same, and they’re way above what [Catsimatidis] pays. Even at this present time in negotiations — just on wages alone — we’re like $8 an hour apart.”
The secretary-treasurer doesn’t think Catsimatidis should be at all surprised Local 553 workers went on strike when they did.
“He was dragging his feet for a over two years,” Demopoulos says.
With two of his daughters in college, Soleyn can hardly afford to be out of a job — but along with his striking co-workers he remains steadfast on the picket line.
“[My daughters] look up to me for everything that they need,” he says. “I’m out here fighting for them as a family. Since I’ve been out here, we can’t afford anything extra. The bills that come in, we have to sit down each week, myself and my wife, and budget down to the penny and decide what gets paid and what gets pushed to next week.”
The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America [DSA] have been among the UMEC strikers’ biggest supporters.
‘We believe that workers and the working class are the only people who really experience the inequalities and realities of capitalism at its core,” DSA member Emma Kukielski told LaborPress outside Smith & Wollensky. “So, that also means people in society that have the interest and the ability to actually transform society — they produce the profits for United Metro Energy Corp. It’s because they are withholding their labor that they actually stand a chance of redistributing the resources of the company and winning a more equitable distribution of resources.”
Local 553’s daring job action mirrors similar strikes and walkouts sparking around the country in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“DSA is certainly excited to see workers at John Deere and other workers across the country also standing up to the employers and saying that they deserve a bigger share and more control over their own workplaces,” Kukielski said.
Demopoulos remains hopeful that Local 553 and Catsimatidis can still reach an equitable agreement soon — but for that to happen the owner will need to play a more active role in negotiations.
“Its been very difficult,” Demopoulos said. “Last meeting didn’t go well. I’m hoping that [Catsimatidis] participates [at the next bargaining session] because I need him in the room.”