New York, NY – Teamsters Local 202 represents 1,500 food-distribution workers at the Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx, as well as 3,000 other members, including social-service workers, ATM mechanics, and telecommunications workers. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has subjected the food-distribution industry to enormous strain. LaborPress recently spoke to IBT Local 202 President, Daniel J. Kane, Jr., about how Hunts Point Market workers are meeting the challenges.
The Hunts Point Terminal Market is the largest produce market in the United States, and supplies about 60-percent of fresh fruits and vegetables for restaurants and grocers in the Tri-State area, a radius that encompasses some 18 million people.
Kane, himself, is a fourth-generation Teamster, whose great-grandfather was a hearse driver who co-founded the hearse drivers’ union way back in 1910. Kane’s grandfather joined the Teamsters in the 1930’s. His father joined the union in 1962. Kane began his own Teamsters career working on the loading dock in 1983.
With the closure of restaurants due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kane says a lot has changed, indeed.
“The coronavirus changed how people consumed food and where we distribute it to. Restaurants were closed and groceries had [spiking] demand. The food people were consuming mostly went through retail establishments,” he says.
According to Kane, workers have a great deal to cope with, but are managing to handle it well.
“Our members at the Market were put under tremendous stress,” he says. “They were inundated with work. Our members were very brave, by-and-large they pitched in and showed up and performed great service for the citizens in this area. I can’t say enough about them.”
With the help of the union, the Local’s members were able to look out for their safety, too.
“The union responded relatively quickly on its own [to the virus],” Kane says. “We were ahead of the curve on masks. The union was able to provide about 20,000 unites of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] – masks, gloves, sanitizer, and face shields. It wasn’t easy in the beginning of the pandemic because it was hard to get your hands on the supplies.”
Local 202’s leadership personally helped get PPE in the hands of Market workers.
“I, personally, and other leaders were in the workplace distributing PPE,” Kane says. “One — it was necessary. Two — the input of the union helps people participate by wearing masks, washing their hands, etc. Our role was to lead. We were out at two-in-the-morning handing out PPE. Our members responded admirably. The city kept eating.”
Kane also thinks the COVID-19 pandemic may be raising awareness about the essential role of Hunts Point Market workers.
“Many first responders, such as medical staff, are in this crisis, but they are the most easily understood,” he says. “I don’t think people were thinking, ‘Where does my food come from? And who loaded it, and drove it to the Market?’ People take for granted the workers in grocery stores also, those who handle food every day. The pandemic brought that out. While the rest of the city sleeps, workers are up at night shipping it. The food runs out, the supply chain has to be reinforced. Now people think, ‘All this stuff happens to feed me.’ I tell workers, they may be calling us essential workers now — but you always were essential workers.”
Come January of 2021, says Kane, “We will bargain for a new contract, and we will remind employers just how essential these workers are. Employers should be showing us their goodwill. Without our workers, without their work, other businesses would have been shuttered also. I think it’s important for employers and the city to recognize that.”