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When Scabs Are a Danger to Public Health

United Metro Energy is risking an environmental catastrophe in Brooklyn as billionaire CEO John Catsimatidis stalls union negotiations.

Halsey Hazzard

Teamsters on strike at United Metro Energy in Brooklyn, New York rally with allies August 10 to demand industry-standard wages and healthcare. PHOTO BY LUIGI MORRIS

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NEW YORK—A dozen oil workers rally in front of the United Metro Energy (UMEC) terminal in Brooklyn on their 113th day on strike August 10. They’re fighting one of the largest suppliers of heating oil and motor fuels in New York.

The strike began months prior, on April 19. After workers spent one of the hottest summers in decades on the picket line, the rally provided a much-needed morale boost. The workers were joined by dozens of supporters, including fellow Teamsters and some perhaps unexpected allies — four of New York City’s elected democratic socialists, all of whom campaigned for the drastic reduction of fossil fuel use.

Led by longtime environmental activist and New York State Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, the politicians spoke out about both the oil workers’ struggle for better conditions and the environmental effects of petroleum. This is more than a workplace issue,” Gallagher said to cheers. This is a human rights issue. All of New York City and the surrounding area will be impacted, and is impacted, by these skilled workers…being held back from their own quality of life and their own safety.”

The strikers include 23 terminal operators, service technicians and truck mechanics, who provide diesel, biofuel, heating oil and gasoline to public schools, hospitals, gas stations and the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Praised as essential workers” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic for keeping the heat on in much of New York City, there’s no telling when (or if) they will return to work.

The workers unionized in February 2019, joining Teamsters Local 553. They spent the next two years fighting for a contract to bring their pay in line with the rest of the (majority union) industry, create a grievance system and join the union’s healthcare plan. But UMEC CEO John Catsimatidis — a billionaire grocery store mogul, right-wing radio personality and longtime donor to former President Donald Trump — has been stalling negotiations.

When the strike began, terminal operator and strike captain Andre Soleyn received notice he had been permanently replaced,” which he says is a sign he’s on the right track.” Still, Soleyn worries how he will keep supporting his three daughters. To date, seven others have received similar notices, and union members say that UMEC has threatened to replace the rest of the strikers.

The terminal is currently operated by eight people who, union members argue, are not qualified to handle the six-and-a-half-million gallons of flammable, explosive product.” The consequences could be deadly to workers — and devastating to the local environment.

Greenpoint, the north Brooklyn neighborhood where the UMEC terminal is located, is no stranger to environmental catastrophe. After nearly 200 years as the seat of the petroleum industry in New York City, neighboring Newtown Creek is a Superfund clean-up site (a 17-million-gallon oil spill hit in 1979). Strikers say the odds of another catastrophe increase daily.

Even with experienced workers, the oil industry is a risky business. Technicians and terminal operators face the threat of explosions and toxic fumes. Asaaf John, a service technician for UMEC since 2009, says he regularly encounters everything from rodent droppings to asbestos to malfunctioning equipment, but when you try to report it to the office… they just don’t care.”

“We know we might be the last generation [of oil workers],” Soleyn says. “We need to get the real clean energy going, and all of the guys here are for that.”

Despite the danger, UMEC’s nonunion healthcare plan has such high co-pays and deductibles that, Soleyn says, healthcare amounts to almost being out of your pocket.” But even that plan has disappeared for strikers, as management revoked their health insurance during the strike. Workers like terminal operator Ivan Areizaga had to scramble to afford insulin. Catsimatidis, meanwhile, claims UMEC is dealing in good faith, but the union has filed claims with the National Labor Relations Board alleging UMEC has attempted to intimidate union members and has illegally hired replacements, among other problems. UMEC did not reply to a request for comment.

Soleyn worries: If [Catsimatidis] gets away with paying us so much less — in some cases, less than half of what we should be paid — other folks in this industry [will try to] model after that.”

Throughout the walkout, Soleyn and his coworkers have also been thinking about climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, new oil projects have to stop altogether to achieve the Biden administration’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

We know we might be the last generation [of oil workers],” Soleyn says. We need to get the real clean energy going, and all of the guys here are for that.” A union contract could ensure oil jobs are good jobs as long as they exist, and that experienced oil workers have leverage to transition to jobs in renewable energy.

Climate change itself poses an immediate threat to the oil terminal. Superstorms Henri and Ida hit New York this summer, flooding massive swaths of Brooklyn and Queens and conjuring memories of the devastating 2012 hurricane season. The terminal was basically underwater” after Hurricane Sandy, John recalls. Ida only narrowly missed the terminal.

UMEC might not be so lucky next time if the strike stretches into next year’s hurricane season. Still, Soleyn and his coworkers may have reason to be optimistic. Once it gets colder, he believes, UMEC will really start to feel the heat. If we’re not in there, not a lot of preparation is happening [for the winter],” he says.

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Halsey Hazzard is co-chair of the North Brooklyn branch of NYC-DSA and an editorial intern at In These Times.

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