As of mid-April, the United Metro Energy plant in Brooklyn has had a squadron of oil workers stationed outside – rotating so the men are there 24/7 – on strike for better compensation and benefits from the business owner: billionaire grocery store, two-time mayoral candidate, and right-wing shock jock John Catsimatidis.
The workers, a coalition of mechanics, terminal operators and service technicians, chose to go on strike on April 19, after years of delayed negotiations on a union contract, which they voted to form in 2018. 24/7, ”said Assaf John, who has worked as a service technician at the company for 12 years. “I’m here until 3pm, then we have guys coming in at 3pm, and some who are there overnight until morning.”
Catsimatidis told the Daily Beast by phone that the picket line was a first for him. “All I can say is that I’ve been a New Yorker for 70 years, and in 51 years in the business I’ve never had a strike before, and contrary to what you hear, we don’t. have never, never refused to sit down ”. he said. “I am always available.”
But the executive and frequent political donor, whose fortune hovers around $ 2.8 billion, according to Forbes, has been nervous about labor demands in the past. (Neither United Metro Energy nor its parent company, Red Apple Group, immediately responded to requests for comment.)
In 2015, the CEO of Gristedes gave up an opportunity to buy the New York Daily News, in large part thanks to the newspaper’s pension plans. Two years earlier, he was ordered by the court to pay more than $ 8 million in legal fees and back wages to Gristedes workers who sued him for unpaid overtime, according to information published in the New. At the hearing, Catsimatidis reportedly showed up more than two hours late.
Union representatives from Teamsters Local 553 will meet with United Metro for another round of bargaining on Wednesday. Due to the pandemic, negotiations have taken place on Zoom over the past year, which many Catsimatidis have attended himself.
Local chief executive Demos Demopoulos told the Daily Beast that a quick resolution was unlikely. At the end of last month, United Metro filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Around the same time, some 150 trade unionists attended a protest rally.
“They have been on strike for 15 days now,” Demopoulos said. “We hope we’ve made some progress, but one of the stumbling blocks is that the company refuses to pay for industry standards.”
The strikers earn up to 50% less than their union peers and haven’t received a raise for three years, Demopoulos said. Andre Soleyn, a fuel terminal operator who spent five years at the company, said he was making $ 20.50 an hour, while the industry standard for his position hovered between $ 36 and $ 38 time. Some of his colleagues earned just over $ 15, the state’s minimum wage.
Unlike employees of some other retail petroleum companies, workers at United Metro do not have a pension plan. John told the Daily Beast that he can rarely find doctors who accept their health and dental insurance. “They usually say, ‘Oh, we don’t know about this insurance,’ he says. “I don’t know how we are supposed to survive – everything is getting better and we are not reaping the benefits.”
On the first day of the strike, Soleyn, who had figured prominently in the union organizing effort, was informed by letter that he had been “permanently replaced”. Two other workers received similar letters, Demopoulos said. The letter said workers can only return if their replacements leave more than a year after the strike has ended.
Catsimatidis admits he hired replacement workers – also known as scabs – but claimed that did not mean long-serving employees had been laid off, despite what their letter said. “The word ‘permanent replacement’ is fictitious,” he said. “When you replace people – you still have to run your business – which usually happens 99.9% of the time, once that’s done, all the seniors go back to work.”
Catsimatidis holds a prominent place in New York business circles, as CEO of Manhattan-based Gristedes, alongside positions at many other companies, including United Metro’s parent company, Red Apple Group. In 2009 and 2013, he ran as a Republican candidate for New York City mayor on some pretty idiosyncratic platforms. A political ad attacking his main opponent from 2013, Joe Lhota, boasts that Catsimatidis “loves cats, dogs and all animals”, while Lhota “has no heart”.
In 2019, he bought the conservative radio station WABC, home to a host of right-wing figures like Curtis Sliwa, and syndications of shows by Brian Kilmeade, Mark Levin and Ben Shapiro. For years, Catsimatidis has had his own show on the station called Roundtable on cats, broadcasting interviews with guests like Rudy Giuliani, and as a press release puts it, “John’s unique take on news affecting New York.”
His take on the strike was mostly confusion. “I don’t know why there is a problem this time,” he said over the phone. “There are theories, yes, but I’m not legally able to talk about them.”