BROOKLYN, NY – Essential workers on strike at a local oil terminal paid tribute to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. from their picket line on Jan. 17. The immigrant workers at United Metro Energy Corp. have been on strike for nine months because the company’s billionaire owner, John Catsimatidis, pays them far less than other workers in the industry.
“Dr. Martin Luther King was in Memphis, Tennessee to support sanitation workers who had been on strike for months — Black workers who were fighting for fair pay and safe jobs — and he was assassinated,” said Andre Soleyn, an oil terminal operator and leader in the strike. “We are carrying on his legacy with our strike. People of color deserve equal pay, equal benefits, and respect for our families. We’re not in this fight alone, we’re in it together.”
The workers provided gasoline, diesel, and heating oil to New York throughout the pandemic, while Catsimatidis — a major political donor — paid them wages as much as 50% lower than at other city oil companies. They have been on strike for nearly eight months, since April 19.
The company has sent letters to eight workers over the course of the strike telling them that they have been “permanently replaced.” The firings have illegally targeted union activists. The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating charges related to the firings.
“Today, corporate America tries to whitewash MLK, but he was hated by those in power during his lifetime because he was uniting people of all races against discrimination, worker exploitation, and imperialism,” said Demos Demopoulos, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 553. “If corporate leaders want their tributes to King to be more than hollow words, they should respect workers of color and pay them fairly.”
UMEC terminal workers, fleet mechanics, and service technicians voted to join Teamsters Local 553 in February 2019, but Catsimatidis dragged out negotiations for a first contract for two years, precipitating the strike. While other unionized fuel terminals in New York City pay good wages and provide quality benefits, UMEC has for years undercut those wages and only offered an expensive health plan that is not accepted by many doctors.
In November, the New York City Comptroller opened an investigation into complaints that United Metro Energy has not paid workers the prevailing wage when delivering heating oil to City buildings.
The oil terminal distributes heating oil to New York City schools and hospitals, as well as fuel to area gas stations.