On the Picket Line at Hunts Point

We should all cheer on strikes like the recently ended Hunts Point Teamsters walk off in the Bronx. But there’s no substitute for socialists actually showing up on the picket lines to provide tangible material support and engage with striking workers.

NYC-DSA members join Teamsters on the Hunts Point picket line in the Bronx. (Charlie Baker / Twitter)

Members of Teamsters Local 202 at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx went on strike at 12:01 AM on Sunday, January 17, for the first time in thirty-five years, to demand a $1-per-hour raise in the first year of their new contract. The thirty companies that make up the produce market — which collectively received a $15-million-dollar forgivable loan during the pandemic on top of regular profits — refused to go higher than 32¢. Six days later, the workers voted to ratify their new contract in the early afternoon on Saturday, January 23.

After a week of picketing that included the arrest of striking workers on Martin Luther King Day, workers turning away twenty-one freight cars of merchandise on Wednesday night, and several socialist elected officials, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, speaking about the importance of labor and solidarity on the line, Local 202 won a 70¢ raise in the first year ($1.87 over three years) and three extra sick days without making any concessions from their previous contract. None of these wins would have been possible if the workers had not struck.

I have organized in support of a few different strikes as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). As a young socialist and trade unionist, I helped organize picket support with a group of NYC-DSA Labor Branch and Bronx/Upper Manhattan DSA members. Supporting this strike in particular was a deeply moving experience — both in seeing working-class militancy kick off right in front of me and doing so alongside hundreds of socialists eager to support it.

After Monday’s arrests, the union made an urgent call to all union members and allies: show up to the picket line and stand in solidarity with us. Organizations like New York City DSA answered that call. On Monday there were only four of us, but by Tuesday more than fifty members had turned out. Then every day from Wednesday through Saturday, over a hundred DSA members picketed with the strikers.

Incredibly, NYC-DSA also raised approximately thirty thousand dollars for a strike fund that kept workers fed twenty-four hours a day. Other members donated barbecues, coffee pots, cleaning supplies, hand warmers, bundles of wood, and fire pits to the line. Between the material donations sent and bodies turned out, NYC-DSA substantially altered the nature of the strike. Without having to focus on keeping workers fed, and enjoying a constant influx of people to the line, the union could stay focused on bargaining and hammer the message home: working people deserve a dollar raise.

Teamsters from other New York City locals and surrounding states poured in to stand in solidarity with their union brothers and sisters, including Local 107, which brought the coolest union trailer I have ever seen in my life, featuring horses breathing fire. There is a reason why union members are so proud to wear their local and international logo-wear: they understand unions are the organizations that have historically driven meaningful economic and social change in this country — and they have badass branding.

A trailer from Teamsters Local 107 pulled up to support Local 202 workers striking in the Bronx. (Courtesy of the author)

Other unions were there, too, including the United Federation of Teachers, the New York State Nurses Association, District Council 37, and the United Auto Workers. At one point, I saw a couple of unassuming sanitation workers from up the street arrive with a manilla envelope. Inside the envelope was a wad of cash they and their coworkers put together to support the strike. There was no ceremony, no pomp and circumstance, just a couple of workers who wanted to express their solidarity with some fellow workers on strike.

This inter-union solidarity wasn’t rooted just in a sense of doing the right thing but an understanding of how the working class can leverage its power. Michelle Gonzalez, a rank-and-file nurse and a member of the New York State Nurses Association, told me on the picket line, “We are trying to build a movement that extends beyond one individual shop. Cross-union solidarity is how we are going to build the labor movement to fight for workers as a collective.”

That same day, a trucker unconnected to Hunts Point pulled over in front of the lot where the picket took place to spout racist nonsense about the union hurting working people by supporting illegal immigrants. “The Teamsters claim to fight for workers, but I only ever see them fight for immigrants,” he bellowed at the strikers. Without hesitating, Local 202 members confronted the racist trucker, gesticulating over the metal police barricades separating them from the heckler, and threw their cups of coffee at him.

After a brief exchange of words, the trucker quickly tripped over himself to get back into his truck and drive away, rattled by the display of solidaristic opposition to racism and xenophobia. One of the workers shouted as the trucker scurried away, “We are all workers, no matter where we come from, and that’s all that matters!”

Later I spoke with 202 member Darren about the incident. “That type of stuff doesn’t fly in our shop,” he told me. “We are as diverse a group as you can get. It just doesn’t work to think like that when all of us do the same hard job for the same wages.”

I was at the picket every day from Monday to Saturday, so I got the full range of experiences, from blocking scab trucks in the face of heavy police presence, to dancing around trash can fires with produce workers overjoyed to be in community on their picket rather than in isolation, to witnessing the moving solidarity that only a strike can generate.

Kori, who I spoke with every day of the strike, said that going out on strike for the first time was life-changing. He now has a clearer understanding of the power of solidarity, the power of collective action, and the power of the working class. After the “yes” vote to ratify the contract, he told me: “Thank you so much for the support you’ve given us. It has meant the world and without you this fight would have been near impossible. The next time there is a strike, don’t hesitate to call me and we will all be there.” Another worker, Frankie, told an NYC-DSA member, “I’ve been quiet for the past few years, but I’m not going to be quiet anymore.”

The sense I had leaving Hunts Point on Saturday was that the workers were relieved to go back to work, but were returning with a new sense of swagger, an understanding that work is not just a place to earn your check but a place where you can fight for respect and dignity. We need many more Hunts Point strikes across industries all over the country if we are going to rebuild the kind of working-class power that can actually rival that of our capitalist counterparts. Because without a rebirth in labor militancy at the rank-and-file level like I saw at Hunts Point, and without a heightened consciousness at the point of production, the Left is dead in the water.