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Immigrant Workers Lead Strike Against Billionaire Catsimatidis

Above photo: UMEC workers on the picket line in 2021. Teamsters Joint Council 16.

Immigrant workers are leading the longest strike in the U.S. against United Metro.

An oil company owned by former mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis.

André Soleyn, 55, and two dozen of his fellow United Metro Energy Corp. workers never wanted to go on strike in the first place. After the workers voted to join Teamsters Local 553 in December 2018, the company dragged its feet in negotiating a fair contract for three years. Feeling like they were left with no choice, the workers decided to take collective action.

“It was a last resort,” Soleyn said.

Tuesday, April 18, marks the two-year anniversary of the strike. Yet, Soleyn and the rest of the striking United Metro workers see no end in sight as they enter the third year of their walkout, which has now become the nation’s longest current ongoing strike.

“It’s been really really tough not just for us, but on all of our families,” Soleyn said.

Roots of the Struggle

United Metro, a Brooklyn-based oil company that supplies fuel throughout the New York metro area, is owned by the flamboyant billionaire and former Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis. He also owns the Gristedes supermarket chain and WABC, a conservative radio station where he hosts a popular talk show, The Cats Roundtable.

According to the Teamsters, for years the immigrant workers at United Metro’s Brooklyn terminals were paid wages 20 percent lower than other unionized terminals. Throughout the first year of the pandemic, workers continued to provide gasoline, diesel, and heating oil to schools, hospitals, and mass transit across the five boroughs while they worked without a contract.

Soleyn, originally from the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, has worked as a terminal operator at United Metro since 2014. He says he was paid $26 an hour but that some of the newer workers made $16 an hour for potentially hazardous work.

“It’s absolutely dangerous,” he said. “Anything could have happened, whether it’s a fire or a leak.”

According to Soleyn, the company had a cavalier attitude when it came to safety. He claims the company was failing to provide workers with the proper PPE when they were required to work during the height of the pandemic. He said that the lack of proper Covid protection only amplified the already unsafe conditions they were forced to endure.

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” said Soleyn. “You have 5.5 million gallons of flammable product there.”

While workers at United Metro continued to work without a contract, tensions between the workers and management came to a head in 2021 when the company refused to resume the contract negotiations they suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The workers’ core demands were affordable healthcare coverage and higher wages, which became even more urgent during the pandemic. Growing exhausted with the slow pace of the negotiations, the workers decided to walk off the job on April 19, 2021.

“The guys agreed that we must go on strike because we can’t continue to live like that,” said Soleyn. “It was a matter of principle.”

During the first few months of the strike, morale was high. The workers would hold daily picket lines outside the terminal’s gate. They also received a wave of financial support from other Teamsters locals around the country as well as solidarity support from the Brooklyn chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Digging Trenches

Early negotiations, however, proved to be a bad omen for the workers. When the union scheduled Zoom meetings with Catsimatidis, the billionaire would show up late, and during lunchtime, he would sometimes leave and never come back. Soon, all communication with Catsimatidis ceased. Union officials said they haven’t had a single meeting with Catsimatidis in six months.

Soleyn said that during the few times they met, he felt Catsimatidis was deliberately disrespectful to them because they were all immigrants of color.

“There are a significant amount of us who are immigrants,” he said. “We are in vulnerable categories and Catsimatidis is taking advantage of us because as immigrants we have to work and we don’t have the option of doing other things.”

Demos P. Demopoulos, secretary-treasurer and executive officer of Teamsters Local 553, found Catsimatidis, himself an immigrant from Greece, unreasonable in refusing to negotiate in good faith.

“He’s stubborn,” he said. “He doesn’t want to recognize that these members deserve the same wages and benefits that the whole rest of the industry is getting.”

As the walkout dragged on, the strike funds that were sustaining the picket line dried up. Workers could no longer afford to stand on the picket. With no income, they were forced to find other jobs.

“After all this time I can’t expect the men to stand out there after two years,” said Demopoulos. “So for now I got them working at other places so they can earn some income for their families but they have suffered, suffered greatly. It was over a year they were not working.”

As one of the leaders of the strike, Soleyn was the first of eight workers illegally fired in retaliation. With three daughters, two in college to support, Soleyn was forced to take a part-time job at another oil terminal. As a result, his wife became the family’s primary breadwinner, and to make ends meet they had to rely on food pantries.

“In my situation, I had to depend totally on my wife,” he said. “Thankfully, she has a job but it was so tough because we had to budget down to the penny on just about everything.”

Still, as workers struggled to secure modest raises in wages, Catsimatidis’s wealth has only increased, from $3.1 billion in 2019 to $4.1 billion in 2023. Since 2012, the state has spent tens of millions on contracts with United Metro.

Catsimatidis nor his representatives returned Documented’s multiple requests for comment.

The union challenged the firings with The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). On Aug. 19, 2022, the NLRB ruled that the eight fired workers were unlawfully fired in retaliation for striking and that they have a right to return back to work without prejudice. But in order for the workers to return, they would have to abandon the strike.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Soleyn. “After so many years on strike, they want you to forget about the union, forget about the vote. Something is not right about that.”

Odds of Victory Grow Slim

As strikes go on, the less likely they are to succeed, Joshua Murray, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University who studies strikes, explained.

“The longer it goes on it does increase the damage to the company but it does increase the damage to the workers and usually the company has reserves of money, so the longer it goes, the harder for the workers to sustain,” he said.

Over the course of the strike, the workers were not able to disrupt the terminal’s business operation. United Metro hired workers to replace the strikers in 2021 and United Metro truck drivers continued to make pick-ups and deliveries. When the truck drivers tried to take solidarity actions, the company threatened to retaliate.

“The drivers were afraid to make that move because one or two drivers that did come out to support the rest of the workers trying to organize, Catsimatidis threatened to take away their medical benefits imminently, and that scared some of the guys,” said Demopoulos.

Regardless of the odds, Soleyn is refusing to call it quits.

“I feel if I start something I must see it through and finish it,” he said. “It wouldn’t just benefit me but more so the younger guys and the guys that come after.”

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