Oil workers at United Metro Energy Corp, located at 500 Kingsland Ave, have been on strike in favor of better pay and benefits since April 2021, after years of being denied the right to form a union by owner John Catsimatidis.
“[Workers] voted to form a union about three years ago because they’re paid significantly less than other workers in the industry, and they have far inferior health and retirement benefits in comparison to other workers doing the same job at other oil terminals in the city,” Alex Moore, communications director of Teamsters Joint Council 16, explained. “But this whole terminal is owned by John Catsimatidis, a billionaire right-wing political donor who’s really refused to budge underneath the workers’ demands that they voted for a union.”
Despite unsuccessful bargaining happening as far back as 2019, it was the pandemic that changed many workers’ perspectives, ultimately lending itself to the decision to strike. Although the energy workers were considered essential, with little to no choice on reporting to work in person and providing life-saving energy to hospitals and ambulances during the worst of the COVID-19 surges in New York City, the company still refused to budge on paying them a commensurate wage.
“We realized that they depended upon us to keep this place going because we had to be here in order to do what we we have to do — servicemen, terminal maintenance workers, seamless terminal operators, truck mechanics; the service guys deal with the oilers and heating equipment, installations, upkeep, and service. They literally keep the heat on,” Andre Soleyn, worker leader of the strike, said. “Management stayed at home while we literally kept the place open. So they recognized us as essential until things looked like they were turning around and we said ‘Well, where’s our raise? Where are our benefits? Where’s the pension?'”
The company’s apparent failure to put their money where their mouth is by recognizing their workers as essential, even going so far as to retaliate against them resulted in the strike of fourteen employees, eight of which have been fired. Moore notes that the National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating the firings, as it’s illegal to fire workers as retaliation for protected union activity.
“The owner of the company is a multi billionaire, and he spends his money in a way that’s benefitting him and putting us in a bad position at the same time, so not only is that demoralizing, I think it’s a way to crush us, and it’s deliberate,” Soleyn said. “It’s difficult to come up against a billionaire who’s willing to fight like that. It’s a dirty fight.”
“We’re paying, or have offered to pay a wage commensurate with the rest of Long Island. What the teamsters are saying to us is ‘Oh, we want something commensurate with your competition across the street. And what does that have to do with our business on all of Long Island?'” owner John Catsimatidis told Greenpointers over the phone. “We did a survey of all the companies at Long Island that we service, and we have offered raises commensurate with those numbers, and we’re sitting down every couple of weeks and bargaining in good faith, and we said look we offering everything, the fair amount that these other people are making,” continued Catsimatidis.
He says that he’ll welcome workers who want to return to their jobs: “We want our people back! If they want their jobs back, come on back!”
The Teamsters have also been working to generate more public knowledge of the strike, which has resulted in support from Assemblymember Emily Gallagher and State Senator Julia Salazar, as well as the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, with many coming out to join physical rallies. Efforts also include protesting outside of facilities and businesses that benefit from UMEC’s services, like Flushing Hospital and a gas station in Greenpoint.
And despite the lack of movement on United Metro Energy’s side, the workers remain firm, acknowledging that their strike is a reflection of a bigger fight for workers across countless industries.
“There’s a saying in the labor movement around strikes, ‘One day longer, one day stronger,'” Moore said. “Some of it is just about staying strong in the picket line, and those fourteen workers who walked out, none of them have gone back in. So I think, especially in this moment of demand for a lot of skilled workers, the fact that they continue to refuse to do this job for less than their worth is demonstrating their power.”
And for Soleyn, what keeps him strong on the picket line is his family.
“I have three daughters, and I have to provide for them adequately. I have to look in the mirror and see I tried hard enough for them because I have to show them that you fight for certain things and certain principles,” Soleyn remarked.
To support the workers on strike, consider donating to their GoFundMe, writing to congresspeople, and joining the worker and supporter rally every Tuesday morning.