When 1,400 laborers at the Hunts Point Produce Market, a 113-acre distribution hub in the Bronx, decided to strike earlier this month, their demands were simple: a $1 hourly raise and better health benefits. Their employer had offered them a 32 cent-per-hour increase, which the workers considered an insult. After all, they’d worked nonstop through a pandemic that had killed six of them.
“Our bosses don’t feel we’re essential workers—we’re only essential when they say we’re essential,” said William Brown, who has worked at the market for 21 years. “We’re showing them that they need us.”
In fact, all of New York City needs these produce market workers, whose average base wages had been between $18 and $21 an hour. Their labor keeps New Yorkers fed, as they distribute around 60 percent of the city’s fruits and vegetables.
Their decision to strike was a risk. “Every benefit in that contract was on the line if we lost—if we couldn’t hold this line, if we couldn’t keep people engaged,” said Daniel Kane, president of the produce workers’ union, Teamsters Local 202, during a speech at the picket. “We didn’t know if we were going to prevail.”
But they did prevail. Not only did their six-day strike win them concessions from their employer, but it became a labor and economic justice flashpoint. The Local 202 picket attracted hundreds of supporters nearly every day, garnered thousands of dollars in donations, and became a minor social media sensation. Their modest demands resonated with sympathizers across the country sick of the compounding injustices of the Covid-19 era, and their success has provided a boost to the militancy of the moment.
“This was about being counted, about standing up, about being out in the street,” said Kane. “That’s the only way that you can make real systemic change. And that’s what happened here.”