Photo by Duncan Freeman
Aug 10, 2021
UME oil workers rally against billionaire boss Catsimatidis on day 113 of strike
The union rally in Greenpoint was attended by city and state officials to apply pressure the day before a return to the bargaining table
Workers from United Metro Energy, on strike since April 19, rallied in Greenpoint on Tuesday with a crowd of more than 60 people, including local politicians, union leaders, and local activists, hoping to put pressure on their boss, billionaire John Catsimatidis, to agree to a union contract. The two parties return to the bargaining table Wednesday.
Workers from UME first voted to join the Teamsters Local 553 in 2019 and Tuesday marks the 113th day that two dozen employees have picketed. Workers are demanding increases in pay, access to better protective equipment, expanded healthcare benefits, pensions, and a union contract that guarantees these benefits.
“We’re here as the lifeblood of this city demanding the same pay as everybody else who does this job,” Andre Soleyn, a terminal operator at United Metro Energy who led the initial push for unionization among the workforce, told the crowd. Al Young, another terminal operator at UME, tells Brooklyn Magazine that he was “grateful for all the people that came out to show their support,” and is striking to get a pension and better protective equipment, both of which he said came standard at other energy companies nearby.
Fuel terminal operators have a standard wage of $36.96 an hour in the area, but many of UME’s workers make as little as half that an hour. A truck mechanic named Rocky said he made $28 an hour at United Metro Energy when other energy companies in the area paid their mechanics $37. Rocky is one of several striking workers who have turned down higher-paying job offers over the last few months from other Energy companies in Greenpoint to stay on the picket line with their fellow employees.
John Catsimatidis, the right wing radio host and twice-failed GOP mayoral candidate, bought United Metro Energy in 2014, integrating it under the umbrella of his conglomerate Red Apple Group, which includes the supermarket chain Gristedes and 77 WABC Radio. According to their website UME delivers bioheat, biodiesel, heating oil, natural gas and gasoline to the New York Metro area and Westchester from their terminals in Greenpoint and Long Island. They are one of the largest wholesale energy providers in the tri-state area and employ more than 100 workers.
United Metro Energy and its workers quite literally kept the lights on during the darkest days of the pandemic in the city, using the company’s 50-truck fleet to deliver gas across the boroughs. The heating oil that UME distributes heats New Yorker’s homes, businesses, hospitals, and schools while the gas they deliver powers cars and trucks via the cities’ gas stations.
UME’s workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize in February 2019 and since then Catsimatidis and representatives with the Teamsters have been locked in contract negotiations.
Demos Demopoulos, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 553 told Brooklyn Magazine that these negotiations have been dragged out by Catsimatidis’ lawyers who were “negotiating in bad faith and have given only small meaningless concessions,” at the negotiating table.
In a statement given in May, Catsimatidis, who could not be reached for this story, said he had “already offered the union certain common sense solutions during our prior negotiation sessions, including participation in the union’s welfare plan and additional retirement benefits for our employees.”
Catsimatidis was “perplexed,” by the strike which he said was the first levied against him in 51 years as a business owner. Catsimatidis said he hadn’t fired any workers but, “as much as the union has the right to strike, we have a right, under federal labor law, to permanently replace employees to enable us to service our customers.”
Teamsters take action
In late May, when workers had already been on strike for more than 40 days, the Teamsters filed charges against United Metro Energy with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Catsimatidis’ company had illegally fired, threatened, and retaliated against the striking workers.
Demopoulos says that since the negotiations began in 2019 Catsimatidis had fired almost 80 workers who joined unionization efforts and had targeted union officials aiding the workers. Demopoulos believes the Teamsters’ legal actions against UME will be successful because UME “continues to take illegal action,” against the striking workers. The Teamsters’ lawyers are continuously filing briefs and complaints with the NLRB, alleging illegal behavior and mistreatment against workers.
Striking UME workers, including drivers, mechanics, and terminal operators, tell Brooklyn Magazine that they had their healthcare benefits revoked once they joined the picket line and said the company had hired “unqualified scabs,” without proper training to take their jobs. During the rally, several workers spoke about the difficulty of paying for family healthcare costs, putting their children through college, and providing basic day-to-day necessities since joining the strike and losing their income.
‘A fight for the working people’
Speakers at the rally in front UME’s Greenpoint distribution facility included several local elected officials including State Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher, State Senator Jabari Prisport, city council candidate Tiffany Caban, and State Senator Julia Salazar, whose district includes UME’s Greenpoint facility.
“I am so proud to represent all of these workers who are standing up for what they deserve,” said Senator Salazar. “This is dangerous, essential work that these workers do every day and it is absolutely outrageous that their billionaire boss has still not come to the negotiating table. These workers deserve a contract.”
Caban said that Catsimatidis’ mistreatment of UME’s workers “is yet another example of billionaires continuing to profit off of the backs of working people.” She called the strike “a fight for all working people,“ arguing that “a threat to any worker throughout this city is a threat to all workers in this city.”
“Every worker deserves a union, every worker deserves quality healthcare, and every single worker deserves equal pay for equal work. Nothing is more important than standing with the workers who run this city,” said State Senator Jabari Brisport who’s district encompasses parts of Sunset Park Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
These politicians lead the 60-plus person crowd in chants of “when union workers are under attack stand up right back,” and “the workers united will never be defeated.” Each promised to address the plight of the striking workers in their respective chambers and to continue putting pressure on Catsimatidis to agree to a contract.
Teamsters officials had initially expected Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to attend the rally as well but he couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict, according to Demopoulos. Adams had dinner at Rao’s, the uptown Italian eatery, with Catsimatidis last month soon after winning the Democratic party’s nomination for mayor.
A return to the table
“We’re here because the working people who got New Yorkers through the pandemic have been poorly treated,” ‘Demopoulos said during his speech at the rally. “These workers had been applauded as essential but now that we want a raise, decent healthcare, and a pension they are calling us replaceable.”
Some of UME’s striking workers said they appreciated the support of the community and elected officials but were tired after 113 days of striking against their billionaire boss. They remained steadfast, however, saying that they would only end the strike if Catsimatidis acquiesced to their demands and agreed to a contract.
Catsimatidis and the Teamsters will return to the negotiating table on Wednesday to try and hammer out a deal.
Demopoulos, a crowd favorite, encouraged the workers to keep going saying “I know it’s a long haul but we’re gonna win this thing. New York is a union town and we won’t stand by while essential workers are mistreated.”
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