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The Pandemic's Role In A Strike At Wholesale Produce Market

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Earlier this month, more than a thousand workers at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx went on strike for higher wages.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do we want a dollar?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Now.

SIMON: They want a raise totaling $1.85 per hour over the course of three years and better benefits. Luis Feliz Leon, a writer and organizer who wrote about the events in The New Republic, believes the demands made by the Hunts Point workers might signal more strikes in the coming year from workers who have redefined essential for many Americans. Mr. Leon joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

LUIS FELIZ LEON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: These were folks who work in a produce market, often unseen by shoppers, but they certainly made the point that they're essential for people to be able to eat. You were on the ground for several days there in Hunts Point. What was most important to them?

LEON: I think it was about dignity. Workers told me that between 6 to 10 people died making sure that New Yorkers had food on their tables to eat during the pandemic.

SIMON: Have these months caused us to reassess that term, essential worker, and to realize how many different people it really embraces?

LEON: Yeah. You know, I think a lot of folks started redefining workers using, like, marketing gimmicks, but they recognize that local mayors, governors, the president, Congress - they're not going to swoop in and save them. They are the ones that are going to save themselves. So I think what you saw was a testament of the magnitude of the governmental and political failure that is capturing the reality that nearly half a million people have died of the virus. A million others have seen their life savings wiped out. Hundreds of thousands more are unsure, almost a year into the pandemic, how they'll feed their kids or keep a roof over their heads. So I think that the Hunts Point strike was a flashpoint in the coming struggles that are going to be roiling the country.

SIMON: Well, tell us what you see ahead, because you suggested in The New Republic that you think other groups, organized and unorganized at the moment, will be inspired and emboldened by events at Hunts Point.

LEON: Yeah, I'm writing a piece for The Nation magazine about the local battles that are heating up across the country around the question of whether schools should open for in-person instruction. And I spoke to teachers in Tennessee. Throughout the pandemic, bars in Tennessee have remained open. Construction was designated an essential industry. But teachers, in Nashville and Memphis in particular, they have been teaching remotely. And the governor, Bill Lee, threatened to remove funding unless teachers returned back to the classrooms to teach in person. And when I spoke to folks on the ground in Memphis, in Nashville, what they shared with me was an unequivocal message of solidarity.

SIMON: There are more than 450 collective bargaining agreements covering a million and a half workers that are set to expire this year, according to Bloomberg. Do you think the pandemic has strengthened the bargaining power of workers at this point?

LEON: I think both yes and no. The potential for these contracts is that the militancy that we saw in Hunts Point carries forward, and we see a great show of solidarity and an outpouring from elected officials, from other unions, from workers. Now, the other question of note is that a job is better than no job.

SIMON: And unemployment is very high right now, and you wonder if workers are reluctant to challenge or make themselves any kind of trouble between them and their employer.

LEON: Right, right. I mean, I think that's a very real concern. But there's also the reality that right now the leverage that workers have is diminished because there's such a great need.

SIMON: Mr. Leon, do you have any concern that when unemployment is so widespread, it's going to undercut the efforts of many workers to organize - let's say, for example, Uber, Lyft drivers and other delivery services - because they're just, you know, there's just so many jobs that are left open, especially in a gig economy?

LEON: What I'm hearing in my reporting from talking to workers is that the choice is between living and dying. It really puts in stark terms the power of coming together and joining with others to struggle for an improvement in your conditions of work. You know, for the past decades, we have seen rugged individualism jammed down our throats as the dominant view of how to relate to one another as people. And I'm starting to see that consensus lose its hold, and I'm starting to see more and more workers reaching out to each other and saying, your struggle is my struggle.

SIMON: Luis Feliz Leon, who writes for the Sold Short section at The New Republic - thank you so much for being with us, Mr. Leon.

LEON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.