New York, NY – Teamsters Local 202 President Daniel Kane has been helping to provide New Yorkers with fresh food for 30 years. He’s been a union leader in this industry for more than 20 years — but he has never seen his members assailed the way they have been this past year.
“We’ve had natural disasters, Hurricane Sandy being the biggest one, we’ve had economic struggles like the crash in 1987 and 2009 to the economy. But nothing as dramatic as the pandemic…maybe September 11, which affected the country,” says Kane.
As bad as they are, natural disasters tend to impact regions, whereas the Covid-19 pandemic is being felt globally.
“The coronavirus pandemic showed us how we define an essential worker,” says Kane. “A lot of people were able to work from home during the pandemic. I’m not downplaying that work. But if you had a lot of demand for your work and still had to come in person, despite fears of contracting the virus — then that is essential work.”
A majority of Teamsters Local 202’s more than 4,800 members are responsible for making sure New Yorkers get fresh food daily — pandemic or not. And that essential service was why Local 202 stepped in with PPE and other safety measures when some employers failed to do so.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we were there with face masks and face shields,” Kane says. “We gave [members] information about avoiding crowds and to make sure that they were social distancing.”
According to Kane, union leaders and members met weekly and never refused to become complacent in the face of Covid-19.
“We made ourselves a presence and made sure that our members knew we were there to lean on for information,” Kane says. “We took the lead on the precautionary measures because we knew it would goad the employers to follow suit.”
Teamsters Local 202 used email correspondence, social media posts and old-fashioned leaflets to make sure each of its members stayed informed. Getting PPE was a bit trickier, but the union found creative solutions.
“We bought masks from a paint shop,” says Kane. “It wasn’t considered an essential service, so it was shutting down during the pandemic. They had paint masks, so we just bought those and handed them out to our members. We hunted high and low for masks.”
The union’s toughest challenge was to get employers to treat their members like the essential workers they are, especially after approximately 25% contracted the coronavirus. Eight of them ultimately died from it, according to Kane.
“Our members wanted to get recognized for the work they do,” says Kane. “It led to one of the biggest [industry] strikes, back in January.”
Indeed, the industry had not experienced a job action like it, since 1918.
“We asked for a reasonable wage increase and their employers said no,'” Kane says. “We were successful in that strike. We increased wages, we made sure hospitalizations were secured, and protected all the conditions of our contract.”
This year’s strike reenforced Kane’s belief that workers fighting collectively for their rights, can accomplish anything.
“If we take a vested interest in each other and work towards a goal to improve lives, not just individually but collectively, they have the power to make great change,” says Kane. “Working people can work together and make substantial change. If more workers stand together we can make this world a better place.”
Post-pandemic, Kane hopes the recognition essential workers in the food industry have achieved goes far beyond simple applause, and leads to actual tangible change.
“[Essential workers] got claps when they left work and were on the street,” says Kane. “The fact is, employers everywhere need to improve conditions on the job through better wages and benefits. We shouldn’t be begging for scraps from employers. We should be demanding our just rights in this country. We will see more workers standing up for their rights militantly because they are tired of the rich and powerful living off the rest of us.”