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Teamsters representatives negotiating a first contract for striking United Metro Energy workers are hopeful that renewed discussions will lead to an agreement, more than six months after the start of a strike at the Brooklyn oil terminal owned by billionaire John Catsimatidis.
Eight workers at the facility have been fired since the strike’s start in April, terminations Local 553 officials have alleged were illegal in complaints to the National Labor Relations Board.
Ivan Areizaga, a striking terminal operator at the facility, said the workers were looking to be paid the industry standard, which he said is $37 to $40 an hour, or about $10 more than they were getting.
“We’re underpaid,” said Mr. Areizaga, a 56-year-old father of two young daughters. “The scabs that they hired are making $5 more than we were, which doesn’t make sense.” Those workers, though, lack safety certifications for the Brooklyn facility, he said.
The striking workers are also seeking night-differential pay and better health benefits. “This is taking a toll,” he said, adding that the loss of medical benefits has been a significant setback for his family, with one member needing diabetes medicine.
“I’ve been loyal to the company, and I felt betrayed when they did that,” Mr. Areizaga said about losing his benefits.
United Metro, whose headquarters and terminal and storage facilities abut Newtown Creek, supplies and delivers bio-diesel, heating oil, natural gas and gasoline throughout the Metropolitan area. The company also has facilities on Long Island. The terminal workers joined Teamsters Local 553 nearly three years ago.
Amended NLRB Complaint
The local, which represents about two dozen workers at the Greenpoint terminal, has amended its original NLRB complaint, filed in late May, after the company fired another worker. The union claims the company “illegally fired, threatened, and retaliated” against the roughly 25 terminal workers, fleet mechanics and service technicians who went on strike April 19.
A message seeking comment left with a Metro Energy official was not returned.
United Metro Energy is part of the Red Apple Group Inc. owned by Mr. Catsimatidis, who twice sought the Republican nomination for Mayor, coming in second in the 2013 primary. He briefly considered a run this year. He also owns talk-radio station WABC-AM, whose hosts have included former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Catsimatidis himself and, until he took a leave earlier this year, the Republican candidate for Mayor, Curtis Sliwa.
Local 553’s secretary-treasurer and the lead negotiator for the contract, Demos Demopoulos, said that while the two sides remain at odds, particularly regarding pay and retirement benefits, he remains hopeful. Following a September of few meetings, negotiations were returning to a consistent schedule, he said.
'Still Far Apart'
“Right now we’re still very far apart,” he said Oct. 26. Mr. Demopoulos said that among the priorities is getting the fired workers back on the payroll once a contract can get hammered out.
“I”m not giving up,” he said, adding that the International Teamsters “are fully supportive” and that the striking workers are resolute, and the union is in the process of setting up a support fund for those on the picket line.
He said the union was making calls to politicians Mr. Catsimatidis supports financially in hope of upping the pressure for a resolution to the contract impasse. “He has the best friends money can buy, if you know what I mean,” said Mr. Demopoulos, a former oil driver himself.
He said the billionaire businessman is “adamant,” almost stubborn. “I’m amazed that someone who claims to be a philanthropist, as he does, someone who has amassed a great fortune from his businesses...that he can’t pay what everybody else who does the same type of job in New York gets paid is beyond me. It’s beyond me,” the union official said. “It seems like it’s a matter of principle with him in not seeking to do the right thing."
'Willing to Fight'
Mr. Demopoulos said Mr. Catsimatidis, who the union insists sits at the bargaining table, has said that United Metro would go out of business if he settled on the union’s terms, “which is ridiculous.”
Mr. Areizaga, who has worked at the terminal for nearly six years, the last three on the overnight shift, and one other worker at the terminal are the only ones who have not been fired. Both have received letters warning them of their impending termination, however. Still, he said he was hopeful that a contract agreement could soon be reached and he could return to work.
“Hopefully, things will change for the better. I’m willing to fight to the end, but, you know, right now I’m going into all my savings,” he said. “But we have to stand for something. The guy’s got the money in his back pocket."
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