In a dead-end corner of industrial Greenpoint, Brooklyn last week, a small group of men chatted about their job prospects as they picketed outside of the United Metro Energy oil terminal. They wore hooded winter jackets, blue jeans and white vinyl signs that said “International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 553.”
The men had worked at the oil terminal, owned by grocery store magnate and former Republican mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, until they went on strike in April of last year to protest low wages and arbitrary firings. Now they stood in front of a banner calling out their billionaire boss: “John Catsimatidis and UMEC: Stop Hurting NYC Families.” They’ve been doing this for almost a year now, and some are worried about how much longer they’ll be able to keep it up.
Andre Soleyn, a 55-year-old father of three who worked as a terminal operator for six years, was once a regular on the picket line, often helping pump air into the 12-foot inflatable rat that the strikers like to set up when it’s not too windy out. But he was missing on Thursday; he later told New York Focus over the phone that he missed the picket because he was busy with his new job as a service technician at a heating oil supplier in Queens, which he started just three weeks ago.
When the 14 terminal workers first walked off the job, they were eligible for six months of unemployment. Once those benefits dried up in mid-October, they were able to receive support from the Teamsters’ strike fund. But the strike fund payments don’t reliably cover all of the strikers’ bills; lately, many of the workers have had to find other ways to support their families.
John Thompson, a service technician in his fifties who worked at the terminal for eight years, said that he has started taking on odd jobs like painting and garbage collection. Mortadi Redouane, who worked as a truck mechanic at the terminal, was too busy to talk about his current jobs; he was on the phone trying to apply for food stamps.
In the months after the workers went on strike, the oil terminal’s parent company brought in replacements to operate the terminal. The strikers claim that these replacement workers are not qualified and lack familiarity with the terminal’s operations, posing a danger to both the environment and themselves.
Going on Strike
United Metro Energy Company (UMEC) distributes heating oil, gas, biodiesel, and other fossil fuels to New York City schools, hospitals, gas stations, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It operates two terminals — one in Long Island and one near Newtown Creek in northern Greenpoint. The company is a subsidiary of the Red Apple Group, the conglomerate headed by Catismatidis that also owns the local supermarket chain Gristedes.
UMEC executives did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this article.
The Greenpoint terminal holds more than six and a half million gallons of flammable fuels; on average, between 700,000 and 1.8 million gallons of fuel flow through it each day. The terminal employs service technicians, truck mechanics, office staff and specialized terminal operators, who are responsible for administering the pipelines, unloading petroleum from the barges, and storing the fuel safely. It is their job to account for each gallon of the terminal’s flammable liquids and take steps to avoid potential spills and other accidents.
In February 2019, they joined with other employees at the Greenpoint terminal and voted overwhelmingly to unionize with Teamsters Local 553. The workers asked for industry-standard wages, better healthcare benefits with lower deductibles, retirement benefits, the creation of a grievance process and an end to the seemingly arbitrary layoffs of more senior and highly-paid workers.
“These workers are paid, on average, 20% less than industry standard,” said Victor Castellano, a business agent and recording secretary for Teamsters Local 553. According to Teamsters Joint Council 16, which oversees all the locals in New York City, the industry standard wage for terminal operators is $37.96 per hour, while UMEC’s terminal operators are paid an average wage of just $27.60 per hour.
After unionizing with the Teamsters, workers began the process of negotiating a union contract with UMEC management. By April 2021, more than two years later, they still did not have a contract. That month, another group of senior workers was suddenly laid off, for no apparent reason. That was the last straw for the remaining workers at UMEC, who quickly voted to go on strike.
Soleyn, one of the striking terminal operators, said that he has worked at UMEC for six years but has not received any raises for the past four.
The lack of a raise became especially galling once the COVID-19 pandemic started, Soleyn said. He and his fellow terminal operators, truck mechanics and service technicians were all deemed “essential workers” and required to work on site at the terminal while the terminal’s white-collar management team was allowed to work from home.
“You can’t fix a truck from home. You can’t install a boiler from home. These are things you need to do on the frontline, and we provided that,” Soleyn said, adding that the unionized UMEC employees did not receive any additional compensation for working on-site during the pandemic. UMEC management did not even provide the workers with cleaning supplies for the first few months of the pandemic, he said, which meant workers had to pay out of pocket to purchase their own cleaning supplies to disinfect their workspaces.
The strike began on April 19, 2021, when 14 unionized UMEC employees — seven of UMEC’s eight total terminal operators, along with five service technicians and two truck mechanics — walked off the job and began picketing outside the terminal. That day, Soleyn received a text message notifying him that he had been permanently replaced. Over the next couple of months, other striking workers began receiving similar messages, part of what the union calls an intimidation campaign meant to break the strike. By November, eight of the striking workers had been permanently replaced.
The union accused UMEC of illegal retaliation against union activists and filed an Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) charge against the company with the National Labor Relations Board. The ULP charge states that UMEC “improperly hired replacement workers to permanently replace striking workers in order to discriminate against or discourage Union membership [and] has improperly threatened striking workers and/or workers honoring the picket line that their health benefits will be and have been terminated.”
The NLRB has not yet ruled on the union’s ULP charge.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates bulk oil storage facilities, warns that “improper handling and storage of petroleum, hazardous substances/chemicals or liquefied natural gas (LNG) can result in spills that threaten the environment or pose health and safety risks to nearby persons.”
The risk is particularly high for facilities located near waterways; in the past, according to the DEC, oil spills in the state have led to the contamination of groundwater and even municipal water supplies.
Castellano, the Teamsters Local 553 staffer, said that UMEC’s Greenpoint terminal is in a particularly risky location. It sits right across from a sewage treatment plant, next to a film studio, and borders Newtown Creek, the estuary that separates Brooklyn from Queens.
Newtown Creek has suffered from oil spills in the past. In 1978, Greenpoint experienced the largest oil spill recorded in the history of the U.S., when as much as 30 million gallons of oil and petroleum leaked into Newtown Creek, contaminating the water and surrounding soil. Newtown Creek is currently a Superfund site, and the clean-up efforts continue to this day.
“Environmentally, [an oil spill] would be very bad for the ecosystem. If it isn’t contained properly it could transfer to New York Harbor,” said Willis Elkins, executive director of Newtown Creek Alliance, an environmental group that has worked to restore the creek’s water quality. “We want to make sure it [UMEC terminal] is being properly operated, and under close observation of regulators.”
A DEC spokesperson said that the state agency will continue to monitor the UMEC terminal, noting the most recent survey of the creek did not find any visible seeps or discharges of petroleum from the UMEC terminal in the waterway.
Soleyn, the striking terminal operator, said that having unqualified workers operate the oil terminal risks the safety of both the environment and the workers themselves.
“If folks don’t know what they’re doing, there could be a pressure build up [in the pipelines], that you could have big leaks and spills into the water, into the soil around there,” Soleyn said. “God forbid, a spark could ignite. They’re playing Russian Roulette with this.”
After the striking workers shared their concerns with state Assembly Member Emily Gallagher (D-Greenpoint) and Senator Julia Salazar (D-Bushwick), who represent the district where the UMEC oil terminal is located, the legislators sent a letter to FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro asking the department to investigate UMEC’s apparent safety violations.
“The continued operation of the Greenpoint facility presents a clear threat to our communities, businesses in the area and the environment,” they wrote in the letter, which was first published by Politico New York.
The FDNY is responsible for enforcing the New York City Fire Code, which requires that bulk oil storage facilities such as the UMEC terminal “be continuously under the personal supervision of a person holding a certificate of fitness for such facility.”
This certificate of fitness, known as a P-13 certificate, is not a general license. The certificate is specific to a single facility and is not transferable.
In order to receive a P-13 certificate of fitness, an applicant must submit an application to the FDNY, study for and pass a written exam, work at a terminal under the supervision of another P-13 certificate holder, and finally pass a verbal exam full of questions specific to that terminal’s operations.
Soleyn, who holds a P-13 certificate, said that prior to April 2021, UMEC employed eight P-13 certificate holders (including himself) at the Greenpoint terminal. Once the strike began, all but one of them walked off the job and joined the picket line, leaving only a single P-13 holder to continuously supervise the plant’s operations 24 hours a day.
On June 8, 2021, the same day that Gallagher and Salazar sent their letter to the FDNY commissioner, an FDNY inspector visited the UMEC terminal to see whether the oil workers held P-13 Certifications of Fitness. The inspector determined that there might not be enough certificate holders to supervise all the terminal’s work shifts, and issued a violation order.
UMEC disputed the violation, and on June 9, the FDNY re-inspected the terminal and dismissed the violation after UMEC showed that at least three employees held P-13 certificates. At the same time, FDNY renewed UMEC’s annual operating permit.
Soleyn and the other terminal operators on strike do not understand how UMEC could have brought on that many P-13 holders so quickly. In their experience, oil workers have not been able to qualify for P-13 certification until they had worked at the terminal for a year or more.
Since the strike began, UMEC has operated the oil terminal without an experienced workforce that’s familiar with the terminal’s operations. So far, it’s avoided disaster — but the union says there have been some close calls.
Two of the striking workers told New York Focus that the oil terminal contains fail-safe systems that will automatically shut down the oil pipeline if something goes wrong, usually due to human error. The workers said that typically the automatic fail-safe systems will trigger once or twice a year, but in the first few months after the strike began, the fail-safes were triggered at least six times.
The only sure-fire way to prevent oil spills — and climate change, for that matter — is to stop using oil, and the UMEC strikers know that the terminal will eventually have to shut down for good. Under the Climate Leadership and Community and Protection Act, New York state has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and at least 85 percent by 2040.
“Our business will or might go away eventually, and we are not here to prevent that from happening,” Soleyn said. “But we won’t go to zero fossil fuels overnight, there must be a transition period where we use less and less of it more efficiently. We are a part of that transition, and we welcome that transition.”
In the meantime, the union will keep up the pressure on Catsimatidis to operate the oil terminal with unionized, well-paid labor.
“This raise would be lunch money to him,” Castellano said. “But he’s been undercutting everybody in the industry for years and getting away with it.”
This piece was originally published by New York Focus, an independent newsroom covering state and local politics in the Empire State.
Inci is a journalist covering social injustices in New York. She is currently a journalism masters student at Columbia Journalism School.