NYC Produce Workers’ Strike: Capitalism’s Treatment of its “Essential Workers”

(We recently helped our North American comrades in Klasbatalo and the Internationalist Workers’ Group write this article about a produce workers’ strike in New York City. It was originally published on Leftcom.org on 3 February, 2021)

1. Unity for who?

Since the beginning of this pandemic, around the globe, the press and governments have proclaimed the need for “national unity.” Governors and presidents have solemnly extolled the message, “We are all in this together,” while in the state of Georgia, 50% of tenants are at least $5,000 behind on rent. Stern news anchors have praised the heroic feats of “frontline” workers, many of whom have not seen any real wage increase in decades. So, what does “national unity” look like for essential workers when they ask for a one dollar raise after 10 have died from the virus and 400 have been infected? Now at the Hunts Point Produce Market the mask of unity is dropped as the boss screams, “Heads down, back to work!”

The workers at Hunts Point Produce Market provide New York City with 60% of its produce. This is their market’s first strike in 35 years. To say that these workers provide an essential service is an understatement. For years, real wages have been declining due to astronomical rents and the cost of living. Meanwhile, the bosses received a $15 million bailout from the Federal government. The working class is expected to sacrifice their health and safety, while the bosses are assured their idle position clipping bailouts like coupons. The capitalist class is never asked to sacrifice anything.

2. A worsening crisis worldwide

Workers’ struggle against the bosses’ offensive has appeared throughout this pandemic and economic crisis. Including in the food distribution industry which early on saw skyrocketing infections due to long standing practices of unsafe conditions. The Cargill meat processing plant in Alberta saw one of the earliest mass outbreaks in Canada with 750 cases. Across the border, last April, meat processing workers in both Nebraska and Colorado staged wildcat strikes defying executive orders which sought to force them back into the slaughter houses, despite unsafe conditions. While, across the Atlantic, Italian workers raised the slogan, “We are not lambs for the slaughter,” against the conditions of their workplace. Today, from Californian nurses to Alabamian steelworkers, the struggle against dangerous conditions and for better pay is on display throughout the United States. And with the various rent-moratoriums due to come to an end, and the looming eviction crisis, without struggle and solidarity across industrial, state and national lines, the condition of our class will only become more precarious.

3. The police are the armed thugs of capital

On the night of Monday, January 18, the Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio sent in hundreds of cops in riot gear who proceeded to viciously attack striking workers, escort strikebreakers through the picket lines, and arrest several workers for “blocking traffic.” The workers continued to strike despite pushback from the NYPD, with Tuesday marking day 3 of the strike. Well known members of the Democratic Party, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and multi-millionaire Andrew Yang, have voiced their apparent opposition to police violence, and their solidarity with the workers. But how is anyone meant to believe support expressed by people who are part of the same government that is determined to violently bust up strike actions? They can’t, and as a class we can’t. The real expressions of solidarity have come from the locomotive drivers refusing to send shipments of produce into New York, and teachers and transit workers who have also been forced to work in unsafe conditions and with a lack of PPE. Unfortunately, these expressions of solidarity from other workers have faced the same isolation and suffocation as all others trapped inside of the union framework.

4. The strength of the class lies in workers’ solidarity, not union rule-books

At a kick-off rally on Sunday, January 17, union leaders thanked the NYPD for keeping them “safe” at the picket line. It was only after the police raid on Monday night that union officials condemned the arrests made of five striking workers who were “obstructing traffic.” Local Teamsters 202 President Daniel Kane made several statements about the necessity of the strike until the demands of the workers are met, despite the presence and actions of riot police. While we support the workers who went on strike, and Kane’s assertion about the riot cops needing the striking workers to unload the trucks inside the market was true, his statement saying, “Our battle’s not with the NYPD,” conceals the reality of the struggle. Because unions are trapped inside the legal strait-jacket, they are unable to recognize cops as class enemies. The institution of police exists to defend the interests of capital, and the brutality of riot police towards workers striking peacefully for better working conditions makes this fact evident.

The truth is that unions are the only legal framework in which workers can organize. This makes them more useful to the bosses than the workers they are supposed to represent. Even the most radical “trade” or “industrial” union leaders will compromise on their long-held principles or sell out the workers when the time comes for negotiations. This has been demonstrated by the outcome of the Hunts Point Produce Market workers’ strike. The workers insisted that they would continue going on strike until they had been granted a $1 increase in hourly wages and had refused to settle for any less. However, Teamsters rushed to end the seven-day strike on Saturday, January 23rd, after reaching a deal with the market’s management: an hourly increase of 70 cents in the first year, 50 cents in the second year, and 65 cents in the third year. The initial demands called for a $1 increase for each of those three years.

This is not about “good” or “bad” leaders. It is about the very nature of unions. Unions assume there can always be a “fair” outcome in the confrontation between workers and bosses. That requires negotiating with bosses, with the understanding that the strike or protest will end after concessions are made — apparently on both sides. As if a struggle between those who can rob you of your livelihood and those of us — wage earners — who have to strike just to keep up with the cost of living is an equal fight! Not only do unions prevent workers from participating in any real organizing for themselves, they are also an obstacle to solidarity strikes, mass strikes, and wildcat strikes, not to mention a real barrier towards any more fundamental struggle against capital itself. In the words of an American unionist many years ago, “Capitalism is as necessary to the union as water is to fish.”

We are not criticizing the Hunts Point Produce Market workers for seeking union backing while they were on strike. Our point is this:

  1. The strength of the struggle rests on the determination and commitment of the workers themselves.
  2. And in this (or any other) struggle all workers should be involved in every step of the decision-making. Mass meetings, not deals between union officials and the bosses sewn-up behind closed doors!

While it is clear now that this strike has not expanded beyond this industry, we cannot yet say whether or not it may inspire other workers to follow suit and call their own strikes. But for decades now the fight to secure better conditions has proven a mirage as the working class pays for the bosses’ profitability crisis. To put an end to the miserable system of exploitation and degradation that workers go through on a daily basis, the working class needs to organize and unite itself to combat that system.

Once workers of all industries, across all countries recognize that they all share the same interests, the way is open for us to put an end to their exploitation and create a world where there would be no need to strike because workers themselves will control how and what is produced. Meanwhile strikes are schools for our class. They teach us about the latent power we have.

So workers elsewhere in New York and beyond would do well to follow and build on this example. Tall oaks from small acorns grow. We can be victorious not only in the fight for better conditions and a measly $1 raise in hourly wages, but in the struggle for political power itself on a world scale. We have a world to win.

Internationalist Workers’ Group, Klasbatalo, Internationalist Communists Oceania

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

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