John Catsimatidis-Owned Oil Company Refuses to Sign Union Contract at Greenpoint Refinery
Claudia Irizarry Aponte, The City
United Metro Energy, the Brooklyn-based oil company owned by radio host and former GOP mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis, declined to sign a longstanding, industry-wide collective bargaining agreement that expired last Friday, Dec. 16.
The contract had represented only three truck drivers, who haul fuel from the Greenpoint refinery, as members of Teamsters Local 553 for decades. But additional United Metro workers, including about two dozen technicians and mechanics, have been on strike for union recognition since April 2021.
In an interview with THE CITY on Thursday, Catsimatidis said — as United Metro executives have in recent months — that the company was never bound by the agreement, a matter Local 553 is disputing with the federal National Labor Relations Board.
Overall, that contract spans some 800 workers in New York City and is negotiated by the New York State Energy Coalition (NYSEC), which deals with labor contracts with unions across the state on behalf of several energy corporations.
United Metro’s refusal to sign the master agreement was largely seen by workers as an attempt to further thwart the efforts of striking workers at the expense of the facility’s three union members.
“That’s all part of the fight to undercut the union effort that we started, and he seems to be getting away with it,” said Andre Soleyn, a terminal operator and union leader on strike at the terminal since April 2021. “So he is definitely using that as a perch to come against us as a group to prevent us from getting what we deserve.”
The new contract that went into effect on Dec. 16 includes a $5.50-hour increase over the three-year life of the agreement — the “largest increase ever,” according to a memo sent to Local 553 members — and the addition of Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
“We are abiding by whatever terms everyone else is abiding by. And if they make an agreement with the rest of the industry, we will most likely abide by that, too,” Catsimatidis said.
“Somebody shows it to me, whatever agreement they abided by, with the other people, we will abide by it,” he added.
In response to Catsimatidis, Local 553 secretary-treasurer Demos Demopoulos said in a statement to THE CITY on Thursday: “I expect Mr. Catsimatidis to be a man of his word and that he will honor his commitment to abide by and sign the Industry Agreement when I present it to him.”
600 Days on Strike
Even as it honored the terms of past industry-wide agreements settled in 2017, United Metro Energy claimed — in a Sept. 20 letter from president John McConville to NYSEC CEO Rocco Lacertosa — that the company was not bound to the contract that expired on Dec. 16 in the first place, because it did not sign the contract.
United Metro, McConville wrote, “is not bound by the current Master Contract with Local 553. To the extent that any such agreement is in effect — which it is not — it will not renew after December 15, 2022.”
Local 553 charged the company had “unilaterally canceled a valid collective bargaining agreement” in an unfair labor practice charge it filed against United Metro with the NLRB in October.
“For the employees that are covered under that contract, they have been paying all the wages, benefits and medical, vacation schedule — everything that’s covered under the master contract,” Demopoulos said last Wednesday. “So it’s ridiculous for them to claim now that they’ve never been covered under that contract, when for years, they’ve been more or less honoring that contract.”
Catsimatidis is the CEO of Red Apple Group, a conglomerate of energy, real estate, media and grocery companies, including Gristedes food markets, which have a longstanding collective bargaining agreement with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500.
The dispute adds another chapter in a multi-year labor dispute at United Metro Energy, which distributes heating oil to New York City schools and hospitals and the MTA, as well as diesel fuel to gas stations. About two dozen of its Greenpoint refinery oil technicians, terminal operators and fleet mechanics are on a strike that has stretched for more than 600 days.
Those workers voted to join Teamsters Local 553 in 2019 and went on an indefinite strike in April 2021, more than two years after fruitless contract negotiations began.
United Metro workers earn hourly wages averaging $12 below the industry average, according to Local 553.
“Basically, they’ve just been dragging out negotiations,” union rep Vic Castellano told THE CITY last year. “And we wouldn’t take this action if they were negotiating the way they claim to be. Nothing should take over two years.”
In April, a year after the strike began, Local 553 called on Mayor Eric Adams to halt a $52 million contract with United Metro brokered by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, because of the dispute. The mayor’s office said it could not sever the deal because the company is in compliance with local regulations, the New York Post reported.
Catsimatidis told THE CITY that the workers “are always welcome to come back to work.”
“Check my record — in 50 years in labor, in New York City, I’ve been a CEO for 50 years, we’ve never had a strike. And the union just on a Monday morning, decided to put these people on strike,” he said.
United Metro responded by firing nine terminal operators at the onset of the strike in 2021 — union leader Andre Soleyn among them. The company was ordered by the NLRB to reinstate the nine employees in July of this year; those workers are separate from the truck drivers whose contract the company is disputing.
The company complied, and all but two of those workers remain on strike, taking other jobs to make ends meet while holding the line.
“There’s a certain resolve that the guys have, and that’s because we all have families that we need to take care of, and we want them to do better than we did,” Soleyn said.
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