Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Brooklyn Oil Workers At United Metro Energy Enter Second Month of Strike

The workers of United Metro Energy Corp. in New York City have been striking for two months to win a first contract. Against a billionaire boss who continues to delay negotiations, it will take militant action to break this deadlock.

Facebook Twitter Share
Photo by Teamsters JC16

The terminal operators, service workers, mechanics and associated staff at United Metro Energy Corp. continue their now two-months long strike against the petroleum products supplier and it’s billionaire owner, John Catsimatidis. 


The strike, which began on April 19, is the culmination of a battle for a first contract after the workers voted overwhelmingly to join the Teamsters Local 553 in February 2019. Then, as now, they demand higher pay, inclusion in the union healthcare plan and a pension. They also seek a grievance procedure against favoritism, and the job security that a union contract provides. 

United Metro Energy

United Metro Energy, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is just one of a handful of fuel depots in the city that hold and distribute heating oil, gas, diesel, and other fossil fuels to homes, schools, hospitals, gas stations, and even the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Key to this operation are the nearly two dozen people who operate the pipelines, unload the fuels from barges, fill the trucks, service boilers in the field, repair the machines and more. These workers are not only experienced, with many having worked at the depot for over a decade, but are also certified to work safely. With up to six and a half million gallons of fuel in the tanks, it takes qualified workers to prevent injury and keep the volatile chemicals under control. Beyond the obvious risk of fires and environmental damage from spills, one look at workers’ jackets shows the potent effect of the compounds — particularly from the dyes used to distinguish different fuels.

Over the years, these workers have also played outsized roles during various emergencies. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, theirs was the only functioning yard in the area and they toiled day and night to support the relief effort. Some of the strikers today recall the weeks of hard work amid the destruction of the hurricane. During the pandemic, the 24-hour depot never closed, but continued moving heating oil to hospitals and gasoline to gas stations. Like so many sectors, they were the essential workers in the fight against Covid-19 who were also left out to dry: they never received any hazard pay or, according to a number of workers on the picket line, even a thank you from management who stayed quarantined in their homes. 

In short, where the old union song goes “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel will turn,” these workers on strike help move the energy that keeps the wheels spinning. Though they are busiest in the winter, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of heating oil flow each day, the summers keep them occupied with work too, and one can watch trucks lining up to fill up with gasoline and diesel. 

The Strike 

Before the February 2019 union election, UMEC was one of only two nonunion depots in the area. Correspondingly, the workers there make between 10 to 15 dollars less an hour than their counterparts in the unionized shops, who do the same work just down the street. It’s a no-brainer then that workers won in a landslide to join Teamsters Local 553, and have fought for over two years for a contract that brings them up to the same standards. Billionaire owner John Catsimatidis — who also owns the Gristedes chain of supermarkets — continues to refuse that standard and has played hardball throughout the negotiations. 

Even before the walkout, Catsimatidis retaliated against the vote and has been cutting departments from the yard. He fired all the welders, and cut back on terminal operators, service technicians, mechanics, and laid off all but two of the yard hands. After the strike began, he continued the cuts by “permanently replacing” five strikers, including Andre Soleyn

Still, the workers have maintained a 24-hour picket line since April 19, with only one worker who refused to join his brothers. There have been rallies, and a number of companies have decided to honor the picket line. Managers and a handful of scabs are keeping the depot running, albeit unsafely. NYC Assembly Member Emily Gallagher and State Senator, Julia Salazar, sent a letter to the Fire Commissioner asking for an investigation into the necessary P-13 certifications of those operating the yard. The strikers joke around about the wisdom of holding a 24-hour picket right next to the aforementioned millions of gallons of flammables being handled by the poorly trained, but that isn’t to make light that any fire or spill into Newtown Creek would be an obviously serious issue.

Strike leader Andre has also noted to Left Voice that there have already been seven shutdowns of the pipelines leading into UMEC — caused by incompetence of the managers and scabs — where there is usually only one or two a year. The only people who can do the jobs well and safely are those on the picket line. Indeed, workers must impose their own safety standards and not let the callous fuel bosses risk an environmental catastrophe with their negligence. 

Throughout the strike, negotiations have continued, though they have been slowed by such antics as Catsimatidis leaving the most recent negotiations on June 17 after only one hour claiming that he had another meeting to attend. Though agreeing to the union healthcare plan, the company rejects any sort of pension scheme. Currently, the employers only match three percent into a 401(k) — an insult, given the hard and dangerous work the strikers do — and have offered only a paltry raise that is nowhere near the workers next door. 

According to workers, Catsimatidis and UMEC have also been holding up unemployment benefits owed to the strikers through various bureaucratic chicanery. For many of the strikers, the $150 a week in strike pay barely covers the gas and tolls for them to man the picket line, making the unemployment checks even more important.  

Solidarity

Shamefully, there are tank trucks crossing the line to pick up fuel that could otherwise be purchased elsewhere in the area. Even worse, some of these trucks are driven by Teamsters of the same local. Though these drivers may eventually be brought up on charges within the union for hauling scab fuel, it does not help the workers fighting now. Greater numbers on the picket line are needed to persuade drivers to do the right thing. Teamsters Joint Council 16, which represents many New York Teamster locals across key industries, has the power to stop de-facto union scabbing. Nothing would help the strike succeed more than a strong show of labor solidarity capable of shutting down the facility.

UPS workers represented by Teamsters local 804 have refused to deliver to the struck United Metro facility — strikers have noticed FedEx trucks delivering packages instead. At a recent 804 barbeque, strikers were well received. Members of IUE-CWA Local 463 have also been distributing leaflets about the strike. These small act ought to be the start of greater union solidarity, and that solidarity is the cornerstone of building the picket lines necessary to halt production and win. 


During the Hunts Point strike early this year, Teamster-represented train engineers played a decisive role in helping the roughly 1,000 striking workers win a modest raise. When a train from Iowa carrying 21 cars worth of produce and goods pulled into the Hunts Point terminal, representatives of the striking workers approached the train crew and asked for their support. The train engineers refused to scab, instead turning the train back — still loaded with millions of dollars worth of perishable goods. Such is the power of labor solidarity.

Workers Must Lead the Fight

During the negotiations between local 553 and United Metro, the workers have largely been excluded from most of the negotiations. One worker attends, but only as an observer. Instead, it has been union officials and lawyers calling the shots from above. The strike itself was called without a vote from the membership — as the rank-and-file wonders aloud why they are striking in the slow season as opposed to waiting for the busy winters. Such a state of affairs is sadly quite common in many unions. Still, a number of strikers are taking greater responsibility for the strike and are itching for more militant activity.

To rebuild a powerful labor movement, workers must return to the lessons of how unions won in the past. The victorious 1934 Teamster strike in Minneapolis provides crucial insights. In that formative battle, union democracy was key to success. Those Teamsters of Local 574 elected a one hundred person strike committee to lead the fight. Negotiations were brought back to the membership for discussion. Mass meetings, also known as assemblies, allowed workers to settle disagreements and act as one united force. Mass mobilization — up to and including pitched street battles with cops and scabs — were necessary to ensure that nothing moved without the union’s approval.

Today’s labor movement appears lethargic by comparison. But the sleeping giant of American labor must awaken, sooner or later.

Facebook Twitter Share

Ioan Georg

Ioan is a factory worker at an optical lens plant in Queens, NY and a shop steward in IUE-CWA Local 463.

Thaddeus Greene

Thaddeus is a logistics worker and a revolutionary socialist based in New York City.

Labor Movement

Higher Ed Strike Fever: This Morning, Temple’s Grad Students Walked off the Job

TUGSA, organizing Temple University’s graduate students, walked out on strike this morning. Winning will take bottom-up organizing from Temple’s unions and undergraduates, shoulder to shoulder with TUGSA on the pickets.

Jason Koslowski

January 31, 2023
Temple University undergraduate students in Philadelphia walking outside a main building.

Temple’s Undergrads Are Taking On the University Bosses

At Temple University, undergraduate students are joining the ranks of higher ed workers who are fighting back.

Jason Koslowski

January 30, 2023

The Higher Ed Labor Movement Runs Full Speed Ahead into 2023

Just thirteen days into the new year, a new set of strikes are already brewing in the higher education labor movement.

Olivia Wood

January 13, 2023
ICU nurse Michelle Gonzales in scrubs and the text "We're ready to strike for Patient Care"

Preparing to Strike: An Interview with a Bronx Nurse

Left Voice spoke with Michelle Gonzalez, an ICU nurse at Montefiore Hospital and NYSNA union Executive Committee member, about the impending nurses’ strike in New York City.

Left Voice

January 8, 2023

MOST RECENT

No to NATO Tanks in Ukraine, Let’s Fight the Escalation!

Left Voice and our comrades in Germany issue a joint statement against NATO sending tanks to Ukraine. We call on the working class to organize against this reactionary war which continues to escalate.

Left Voice

January 31, 2023

The New York Times Is Wrong: Trans Kids Need Support, Not “Gender Skepticism”

While state legislatures across the country have launched an unprecedented attack on trans youth, the New York Times saw fit to publish a pair of articles calling on liberals to make space for “gender skeptical” ideas among parents. They are wrong. Trans kids need more support, not gender skepticism.

Reba Landers

January 31, 2023
Detroit socialist activist Tristan Taylor at a protest during 2020.

First We Mourn, Then We Organize: A Letter to Weary Black Organizers Who Have Had Enough

Tyre Nichols, and all victims of police brutality, must be mourned. But we can't stop fighting or give in to despair — we have to build an independent political party that clashes with the capitalists physically, politically, and ideologically.

Tristan Taylor

January 29, 2023

In Standoff Over Cop City, Police Are the Real Terrorists

For over two years, the protests and occupations against a police training center in Atlanta, Georgia flew under the radar of the mainstream press. Now, after the police murder of land defender Manuel Teran and the arrest of 19 protesters on charges of domestic terrorism, the standoff has gained national attention. But in the battle to defend the Weelaunee Forest and the people of Atlanta from the development of the massive “Cop City” training center, it is the Atlanta Police Department and the state that have been acting like terrorists.

James Dennis Hoff

January 27, 2023