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Labor union strikes Philadelphia produce market

by Tad Thompson | February 28, 2010
PHILADELPHIA - A labor strike, which began at 12:01 a.m. on March 1, has slowed business at the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market as members of Teamsters Local 929 were picketing at the market's gates.

The Produce News spoke with the strikers and met in the market’s board room March 1 with Sonny DiCrecchio, executive director of the market, as well as Dan Kane, the market’s assistant manager, and John Widman of Susanin Widman & Brennan, PC, which is based in Wayne, PA, and who is the market’s legal counsel.

Rocky Bryan, president of Teamsters Local 929, who was dressed in a black union jacket to brace against a cold wind, indicated that the market business owners were "being unreasonable" because the employers “want us to pay out of our own pocket” if their health insurance costs rise more than 5.5 percent. Mr. Bryan also objects to the business owners wanting to end the custom of paying double-time for work on Sundays.

Union member Steve Troilo said the contract expired Feb. 1 and “these guys have not negotiated since day one” after the contract was extended by a month, until March 1.

Another picketer, John Ellis, told The Produce News that his base pay is $32,000 a year. With overtime last year, he was able to earn $48,000. He said the loss of time-and-a-half or double-time pay days will make him unable to cover living expenses.

“We will stay out as long as it takes” to receive a better contract, Mr. Bryan said.

Before the boardroom meeting, The Produce News spoke with several business owners on the Philadelphia market, who deferred strike comments to Mr. DiCrecchio. About 10:30 a.m. on March 1, one business owner said he had worked without his laborers since 11 p.m. the night before. He mused that he was moved to drinking the “Red Bull” caffeine drink because its kick was greater than coffee. Other owners also indicated they had been at their stations since the previous day in anticipation of the strike.

Mr. DiCrecchio said that the announcement of the strike came as a surprise to the Philadelphia market.

The market negotiated with the union until 7 p.m. Feb. 26, said Mr. DiCrecchio, and “we had already accepted the first-year contract” with the union leaders. The market owners made an offer on health care insurance costs and had offered other compromises.

As the meeting wound up on the night of Feb. 26, Mr. DiCrecchio related, “I said, 'There are more negotiations to be done. If you vote this down we need to collaborate’ and I asked for a three-day extension” to avoid a March 1 strike.

Because there were items for discussion on the table, Mr. DiCrecchio was surprised when a strike was declared instead of having further talks.

He added that the month’s extension of the contract was granted at the union’s request because of a change in leadership in December.

Mr. DiCrecchio said that the largest contract challenge involves paying double-time on Sundays. “Our competition is working six and seven days a week. We need to be a six-day market,” he told The Produce News.

He said the construction of a new Philadelphia market brings a $150 million, 40-year mortgage for the market operators. For them to pay that debt, they must be doing everything they can to be profitable. “We need six-day service to our customers and [the union] refuses to see that? Shoot [the proposal] down, but don’t walk out. These guys can’t understand” the difficult issues faced by businessmen “but some of these guys live paycheck to paycheck. … It’s unfortunate they walked out.”

Already a third of the market’s workforce works on Sundays. Mr. DiCrecchio said that longer weekly labor just must be accepted as a way for businesses to endure in an increasingly competitive society. He added “this is about surviving” today’s economic environment.

Mr. Widman, who has worked in labor issues for 28 years, explained that health-care costs at some point need to be shared by employees in order for businesses to remain in business. The market owners had offered an increase in wages of about 29 cents an hour to cover the workers’ health costs in the event that those insurance costs rose above the 5.5 percent average annual increased rate of recent years.

The union’s pension is another concern, Mr. Widman said. Because the Multiemployer Pension Plan was hurt so badly by the recent stock market fall -- with a drop in value from $2.3 billion to $1.5 billion -- union members face great difficulty in overcoming the losses. Employers can do things to help recuperate some of those losses, but there are limits in how much additional cost employers can bear.

Mr. Widman noted that the union wants increased wages, increases in health care costs and more money put into pension plans. “Our customers don’t pay us three times” to cover the three worker cost categories.

Mr. Widman noted that the Teamsters 929 has signed a contract -- which is independent of the immediate issues – to work at the new Philadelphia market for the next 40 years.

“If there is not the business to sustain the new market, everybody loses,” Mr. Widman said.

The new market, which is officially named the Regional Produce Cooperative Corp., is due for completion on July 30, according to Mr. Kane. It will take 60 days after completion to test all the systems before the move from the current market, which was built in 1959.