RIVERHEAD, N.Y.—The United Metro Energy Corporation, where Teamsters Local 553 members in Brooklyn seeking their first union contract have been on strike for more than a year, on June 10 announced it had signed a five-year union contract at its two fuel-oil terminals on Long Island. But the Teamsters call the union there, United Service Workers Union Local 355, a “sham union.”
The deal covers 24 employees, including terminal operators, mechanics, and service technicians, at United Metro Energy’s facilities in Riverhead and Calverton.
“On behalf of myself and our companies, I would like to thank Local 355 for bargaining professionally and for sharing our desire to get a good deal for both sides, in fewer than six months, during these difficult economic times,” the company’s owner, supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, said in a statement.
“Catsimatidis is cutting a deal with an illegal organization,” responded Local 553 President Demos Demopoulos. “This is just one more union-busting move from the billionaire who fired immigrants for going on strike.”
Local 553 represents 14 workers, including terminal operators, mechanics, and service technicians, at United Metro’s Brooklyn terminal who went on strike in April 2021 after more than two years of trying to win their first union contract. Eight strikers were fired, or “permanently replaced.”
Demopoulos says the line about “bargaining professionally” is a personal barb, intended “to make me look bad, that I’m being unreasonable.” Local 355’s benefit package is nothing near what the Teamsters provide, he added.
“United Service Workers 355, IUJAT is a well-established labor organization representing over 10,000 members and appears to be growing, whereas Teamsters 553 has lost hundreds of members over the last several years, to fewer than 3,000 members,” a spokesperson for Catsimatidis’s Red Apple Group said in a statement to LaborPress. “UMEC and USW 355 entered a five-year contract that provided for wage rates and employee benefits within industry and union standards. The rates of pay and benefits at both unions are comparable.” He said Local 355 has represented workers at the two terminals for 18 years.
He did not respond to questions for specific details about pay and benefits. The Teamsters say a main reason for the Brooklyn strike is that UMEC’s pay and benefits at the terminal, on the Newtown Creek waterfront in Greenpoint, are substantially below industry standards in the area.
Strikers there say they were paid at least $8 an hour less than what they’d get for the same job at other fuel companies, and have less time off and much weaker benefits.
USWU, based in New Rochelle, is under the umbrella of the International Union of Journeymen and Allied Trades (IUJAT), which also includes an organization called the Home Healthcare Workers of America. It claims 18 locals and 30,000 members. It is descended from the United Service Workers Association, which either quit or was kicked out of the AFL-CIO in 2003, depending on who’s telling the story. The organization has had numerous disputes with the building-trades unions over raiding and apprenticeships.
IUJAT Local 124, also known as Local 741, was the “independent union” that represented workers at Sanitation Salvage in the Bronx, a commercial garbage-collection company that closed in 2018 — a year after a 21-year-old helper working off the books for below minimum wage was killed when he fell off the truck, and the company tried to cover it up by saying he was a homeless man. A former Sanitation Salvage worker told LaborPress in 2019 that when he asked why they hadn’t gotten a contract in two years, a Local 124 representative answered, “we’re trying to come up with something that’s good for the company.”
According to Demopoulos, Local 355 got its start on Long Island about 60 years ago, when Long Island fuel-oil companies that didn’t want to contribute to the Teamsters’ benefit funds cut deals with the “sham union.” Teamster lore is that it chose its name to create confusion with Local 553.
“They took our numbers and spun them around,” Demopoulos says. “Anywhere we had a strike, the owner brought in 355.” Many USWU locals are headed by former Teamsters, he adds — people who are “ex-Teamsters for good reasons.”
Local 124 co-leader James Bernardone was suspended from the Teamsters in 2000 for making “sham collective bargaining agreements” that included members of management or their spouses in the bargaining unit so they could get union health benefits. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2014 for extorting construction contractors. The indictment described him as a soldier in the Genovese crime family.
“Labor organizations that compete for the same membership may make certain assertions about competitive unions,” the Red Apple Group responded. “Red Apple and United Metro Energy are pro-union employers.”
Negotiations in the Brooklyn strike will resume June 20. The union is also pushing for the city to stop buying oil from United Metro until it signs a contract. The company has a $52 million contract to supply heating oil to city agencies, primarily the Department of Education.
In May, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams urged the city “to cease doing business with United Metro Energy until our workers are provided a fair contract.” Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso has questioned whether the company is violating its contract with the city by paying less than prevailing wage.
A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams told LaborPress in April that the contract was “in compliance with all city procurement rules.”
“New York City is the biggest customer for [Catsimatidis], and he’s not paying prevailing wage,” Demopoulos says. “All I want him to do is pay what the rest of the industry does, the same wages and benefits.”