Workers Speak Out About Labor Violations at NYC Schools Contractor
Workers from a heating oil supplier for New York City schools testified at a City Council hearing today about retaliation and mistreatment amidst a ten-month union strike. Teamsters Local 553 members from United Metro Energy (UMEC) called on New York City to end fuel purchases from the company and hold it accountable.
The hearing before the City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Council Member Carmen de la Rosa, focused on how New York City can strengthen worker rights. The ongoing essential workers strike became a focus for the hearing, as UMEC and its billionaire owner, John Catsimatidis, face twin investigations by the National Labor Relations Board for retaliating against union activists and the New York City Comptroller’s Officer for illegally low wages on city jobs.
Andre Soleyn and Ivan Areizaga are oil terminal operators and leaders in the union drive who testified to the committee.
“Over the past ten months, eight of us have been fired in retaliation for our strike,” said Soleyn. “New York City bears responsibility. Despite what John Catsimatidis is doing to us, New York City continues to buy millions of dollars of fuel from the company.”
“After just one week on strike, the company stopped our medical benefits,” said Areizaga. “My son has Type 1 diabetes. He couldn’t get his medication anymore. It’s one thing to come after us. It’s another thing to punish our families.”
Workers at the UMEC oil terminal in Brooklyn have been on strike since April 19, 2021. The workers provided gasoline, diesel, and heating oil to New York throughout the pandemic, while Catsimatidis paid them wages as much as 50 percent lower than at other city oil companies.
UMEC has received an average of $21 million each year from New York City agencies since 2015 as a prime contractor, mostly from the Department of Education for heating oil. In total, New York City agencies have spent a total of $153 million on UMEC contracts since 2013. In addition to the Department of Education, other city agencies that also purchase fuel from UMEC include The City University of New York, the Department of Education, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Social Services.
“United Metro Energy has committed numerous violations of federal labor law, but New York City checks keep flowing to the company,” said Demos Demopoulos, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 553. “Worker abuse should not be treated as business as usual by New York City government. When immigrants and workers of color are exploited, New York City public dollars should not be paying for it.”
UMEC terminal workers, fleet mechanics, and service technicians voted to join Local 553 in February 2019, but Catsimatidis dragged out negotiations for a first contract for two years, precipitating the strike. While other unionized fuel terminals in New York City pay good wages and provide quality benefits, UMEC has for years undercut those wages and only offered an expensive health plan that is not accepted by many doctors.
The company has sent letters to a majority of the workers over the course of the strike telling them that they have been “permanently replaced.” The firings have illegally targeted union activists. The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating the firings, among other charges.
In November, the New York City Comptroller opened an investigation into complaints that UMEC has not paid workers the prevailing wage when delivering heating oil to City buildings.