Who’s more essential than Francisco Flores?
A warehouseman at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, he has 28 years on the job, including the crazy last one, loading and unloading trucks, making sure that 60% of New York City’s perishable fruits and vegetables arrive swiftly on supermarket shelves and in restaurant kitchens.
“It’s a manual job,” said Flores, 46, who lives with his wife and three children in the borough’s Throgs Neck neighborhood and followed his own father into the market. “It’s like working out at the gym for eight hours every night. I know every spot in here.”
Hunts Point is a teeming marvel, a vital link in the city’s Byzantine food chain. Those 113 acres of loading docks and refrigerated warehouses are, in fact, a co-op of 30 family-owned businesses. The market bursts to life every night with an onslaught of trucks from farms, importers and distributors, which are met by 1,400 unionized porters and warehousemen. Those companies and their workers handle $2 billion of fresh food every year, everything from acorn squash to zigzag vine fruits — and countless thousands of varieties in between.
The workers went on strike on Jan. 17, shining a rare light on this key piece of urban infrastructure and raising a dicey specter: food shortages, just as the city battles another coronavirus surge? The strike is also another reminder that a long list of uncelebrated toilers have kept the city afloat through COVID-19.
“When I got out of high school, my father gave me, like, a month,” Flores said. “Then, he asked me, ‘Are you going to college?’ I said, ‘Nah, I’m not really a college guy.’ He said, ‘OK, let’s go. You’re not gonna sit around doing nothing.’ I’ve been working here ever since.”
When the pandemic arrived last spring, Flores recalled, he was among those cheering the hospital employees, first responders and other essential workers.
“But aren’t we essential too?” he asked. “I go to my grandmother’s house. She’s eating because of here. I go to my friends’ houses. I see bags of potatoes that come out of my store, maybe other stores in here. I love knowing I’m playing a small part in taking care of the people of the city I was born in and lived in my whole life.”
It’s the first strike at the market in 35 years. The workers, represented by Teamsters Local 202, make a wage of $18 an hour and change, about $40,000 a year. They’re seeking a $1-an-hour raise plus another 60 cents to cover rising health-care costs. Management has offered a 3% raise, which comes to about 54 cents an hour, noting that each worker already receives a $15,000-a-year health-insurance subsidy, plus pension contributions.
The two sides were still talking at week’s end, an encouraging sign, though a deal did not sound imminent. People on both sides said they thought the city’s food chain could withstand a short strike without serious disruption — but perhaps not a longer one.
“The market remains open for business, and we are actively involved in negotiations,” said Robert Leonard, a spokesman for the Hunts Point ownership co-op. He also noted that, as the virus raged last spring, business at the market was down 30%. “We ended the year down 10%,” Leonard said.
Among the familiar faces doing guest stints on the picket line: State Assembly member Amanda Septimo, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“The food has to keep moving all the time, and it takes a lot of hands to do it,” said Local 202 President Daniel Kane Jr., who began his own work life at Hunts Point 40 years ago. “Once COVID came in, the employees couldn’t close down and hope the virus just went away,” he said. “They had to wash their hands, mask up and go to work. Because of that, New Yorkers got to eat.”
His own family story mirrors that of today’s crew, Kane said. “My grandfather started there in the Depression. That job lifted our family out of poverty. These people, they work hard and do it for the next generation. Their kids go to college. They have hope. They have stability. They see their dreams come true through their children’s eyes. After the year we’ve just had, they’ve been asking, ‘Aren’t we worth another dollar another $1 an hour?’ We were always essential. It’s just that, until COVID, no one ever called us that.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.