By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York restaurants and grocers scrambled on Thursday to make alternative plans for supplies of fresh food ahead of a possible weekend strike at the city's largest wholesale produce market.
Some 1,300 members of Teamsters Local 202 could walk off their jobs on loading platforms and storage facilities at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx on Sunday, a union spokesman said.
They had threatened to strike when their contract expired at midnight on Thursday but agreed to postpone the job action at the request of a federal mediator, the union said in a statement.
The market has contingency plans to stay open in case of a walkout, a spokesman said. The union said it was unlikely the market could remain open.
At issue are wage increases and healthcare costs for the produce handlers, the union said.
"We are ready, willing, and able to meet with the federal mediator and the businesses to try and settle this contract," said Daniel Kane, president of Teamsters Local 202.
"Come Sunday, if we haven't reached an agreement with Hunts Point owners, we will be on strike," he said.
Hunts Point, which claims to be the world's largest wholesale produce market, supplies about 60 percent of the produce in the New York metropolitan area, spokesman Robert Leonard said.
Its customers primarily are small food markets and greengrocers, along with wholesalers and purveyors that sell produce to restaurants, he said.
Leonard could not be immediately reached for a response to the postponement.
The market's employers are 150 businesses that bargain as a group, the union said.
Restaurateurs who shop directly at Hunts Point would be hit if a strike shuts down the market, said Dan Soloway, a food industry veteran and an owner of Jake's Handcrafted restaurant in Brooklyn.
"Everything is there," he said. "So you have a lot of folks going in and out of there buying direct."
In the event of a strike, customers could turn to food wholesalers or large distributors for supplies, Soloway said. "If everybody's caught off guard or not preparing themselves, you could have some issues," he said.
Baldor Foods, a Bronx-based distributor with a fleet of more than 200 trucks, would go to wholesale markets in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland, Michael Muzyk, its president, said.
"I go to those markets on a daily basis so it would just be shifting my buy," Muzyk said.
(Editing by Frank McGurty, Leslie Adler and Eric Walsh)