As Joe Biden Takes Office, Labor Marches On

In the first 24 hours of the Joe Biden administration, Teamsters are on strike in the Bronx, Chicago teachers are preparing to stop work, and even the staff of the New Yorker are engaged in a work stoppage.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joins striking workers at the Bronx’s Hunts Point Produce Market in New York City on January 20, 2020. (Teamsters JC 16 / Twitter)

While Joe Biden took the oath of office at noon in Washington, DC yesterday, elsewhere, workers were facing down police officers to prevent the flow of goods into the largest city in the United States.

“No Justice No Peas” read one sign stuck to the front of the Teamsters mobile command unit at the strike line in Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx. There, 1,400 workers who handle the majority of New York City’s produce are striking over the demand for a $1 an hour raise.

The strike began Sunday in response to the distance between the workers’ proposed wage hike and the 32 cents an hour offered by management, a counterproposal workers call “disrespectful.” The workers, members of Teamsters Local 202, have been picketing the terminal every day around the clock.

If striking in freezing temperatures is always a challenge, in recent days the atmosphere has grown festive despite a heavy police presence. Video from the action shows a backdrop of Bad Bunny and fireworks, with strikers drinking hot chocolate and warming themselves near a fire.

After several strikers were arrested late Monday night, supporters rallied. Other union members, from nurses and teachers to Verizon workers, have traveled to the market’s entrance at 772 Edgewater Road to reinforce the line. Organizations such as Democratic Socialists of America have done likewise, organizing food and coffee distribution and collecting donations.

Politicians are present, too. As the City reports, a Sunday kickoff rally was attended by Bronx assemblymember Amanda Septimo, who represents the area in the state legislature, and State Sen. Diane Savino, a member of the State Senate labor committee, as well as city council members Vanessa Gibson and Brad Lander. Mayoral hopefuls Dianne Morales, Andrew Yang, and Maya Willey have all showed up, as has Rep. Ritchie Torres and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

Yesterday, as her counterparts in Washington, DC celebrated a new presidential administration, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez picked up Café Bustelo and hot chocolate and headed to the picket line. Ocasio-Cortez connected the events in the Bronx to those across the nation, arguing that the situation the striking workers find themselves in is just one example of a backward economy, and that workers deserve not only a raise, but health care and functioning labor laws. Speaking into a bullhorn, she said:

When you’re standing on this line, you’re not just asking for a dollar, you are asking for transformational change for your lives, and for the lives of every food worker across this country, for kids of food workers across this country. There’s a lot of things upside down right now in our economy. And one of those things that is upside down is the fact that a person who is helping get the food to your table cannot feed their own kid. That’s upside down. What we’re doing here today is taking the upside-down and making it right-side up.

Even as the Bronx strike built momentum, a storied union in another city began preparing for their own potential work stoppage. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), who have led and won strikes in recent years and, in doing so, helped transform the politics of the country’s third-largest city while also inspiring the nationwide 2018 teachers’ strike, are preparing for the possibility that they will withdraw their labor for the second time in fourteen months. The last strike, in 2019, lasted fourteen days.

Their dispute is over the city’s plan for reopening schools. On Wednesday night, the CTU’s House of Delegates passed a resolution to refuse to return to in-person work on Monday until the union reaches an agreement with the city over health and safety measures. The measure notes that if the city retaliates against teachers for refusing in-person work, the CTU will strike. Eighty-four percent of the delegates voted in favor of the measure, which now moves to a vote by the full membership.

“Our members are resolved to continue working, teaching their students and doing so safely,” said CTU president Jesse Sharkey, adding that “only the mayor can force a strike, and if it comes to that, that’s her choice. We choose safety.”

By the end of his first workday, Biden had signaled a willingness to heed labor’s priorities. Unions spent the weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration urging the president-elect to fire Peter Robb, the former management-side attorney who serves as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under Robb’s watch, the board lost more than 25 percent of its field staff. As one labor analyst writes, Robb was “discretionarily refusing to hire the manpower necessary to enforce federal labor law across the country.”

Though some politicos worried that Robb’s immediate dismissal could set a precedent Republicans will use when they win back the executive office, union leaders from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) insisted the situation was an emergency, and that it was Robb who was violating norms by defying the agency’s mandate. Within minutes of taking office, Biden followed labor’s lead. At first, Robb declined the Biden administration request — sent at 12:23 PM — that he vacate the seat. Shortly after, he was gone.

By sunrise this morning, there was a new strike. After two years of negotiating for a first contract, staff at the New Yorker began a twenty-four-hour work stoppage at 6 AM. In a statement, the roughly one-hundred-member union — represented by the NewsGuild, which also represents Jacobin — announced that the action was taken in response to the distance between its proposed wage floor and that put forward by management: workers had proposed a floor of $65,000, while the bosses countered with $45,000 as well as insisting on the right to decrease staff salaries by up to 20 percent. Such action is no empty gesture; it leaves the publication’s website quiet on the first full day of the Biden presidency and hinders the print weekly’s production process, the bulk of which happens on Thursdays.

“The reason for our escalation is to force back onto the company just an iota of the pressure many of our members have felt constantly for years, even decades, as they’ve struggled to piece together a living while fulfilling (and often exceeding) the highest professional expectations,” Hannah Aizenman, poetry coordinator at the magazine and the union’s secretary-treasurer, tells me, noting that the successes the union has previously racked up — winning just-cause protections and ending “permalancing” — were the result of “direct collective action.”

Asked about the Teamsters strike taking place just north of the New Yorker offices, Aizenman said the following: “Our members are inspired by the brave workers striking for what’s right at Hunts Point. Though we may do different kinds of work, labor struggles across industries are obviously connected: we are all fighting for humane, dignified conditions, and it’s galvanizing to see union members taking such powerful action to raise the standards of another New York institution. We support the Teamsters in their demands and in their strike, and we thank them for showing workers everywhere how it’s done.”

That makes two strikes in New York and labor on the march elsewhere, with a president sufficiently determined to at least appear pro-labor that he has installed a bust of Cesar Chavez in the Oval Office. Let’s hope he finds a way to repeal the ban on secondary boycotts, a tactic of which Chavez was so fond. It’s a start.