(Adds no progress in talks, comment about strike contingency plans)
By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Workers at the market that supplies New York City with much of its fresh fruits and vegetables were prepared to go on strike as early as Wednesday for the first time since 1986 if negotiators failed to reach a pay deal before a contract expires at midnight, their union said.
Employers at the sprawling Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market said they were confident of an agreement, but the president of the union said he believed a strike was more likely than not after the current contract expires.
“I’m not very optimistic that we’re going to get a settlement, let’s put it that way,” Dan Kane, president of Teamsters union Local 202, which represents the workers, said on Tuesday.
The two sides were still at the bargaining table late on Tuesday afternoon, but a union spokesman said no progress had been made.
The 1,100 workers who load and unload trucks and sort fruits and vegetables for 35 produce merchants operating at the South Bronx facility rejected a management offer of a pay raise of 30 cents an hour on Saturday and authorized union leaders to call a strike if necessary.
The union has not issued a strike deadline but left open the possibility of a work stoppage any time after midnight, Kane said.
Even though employers, who are represented by the New York Produce Trade Association, were optimistic about averting a strike, they have prepared contingency plans to keep the market open if the workers walk off the job, spokesman Robert Leonard said.
Leonard declined to elaborate on the contingency plans or say if they included hiring replacement workers.
“But rest assured that we’re going to be moving produce throughout the region if there were to be a job action,” he said.
The Hunt’s Point market says it supplies 60 percent of New York City’s food. It is the city’s central distribution point for fruits and vegetables that are shipped in from all over the world and delivered to restaurants, grocery stores, wholesalers and hotels.
The union was seeking a raise of 75 cents an hour for workers, whose annual pay ranges from $45,000 to $55,000, depending on length of service, work schedules and overtime, Kane said.
A key goal for the union is to bridge a pay gap under which new workers make almost $2 an hour less than longer-serving workers, a provision that was agreed to during the 2009 recession, he said. (Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman)