This week, two Teamster locals won new contracts with the behemoth food distributor Sysco, ending a nearly monthlong strike that drew national support. More than 200 workers for Sysco — America’s largest food distributor — went on strike in Syracuse, N.Y., on September 27. Days later, more than 300 drivers for Sysco Boston went on strike in Massachusetts. Workers in Arizona also reportedly struck in solidarity.
On October 17, workers at a Syracuse distribution center ratified their new contract with Sysco — one that Sean Miller, a warehouse worker and shop steward with Teamsters Local 317, says involved “zero concessions to the company.”
In one key victory, Sysco agreed to limit the grueling six-day workweeks and the 16-hour days some drivers spoke of, and dropped a plan that would prevent new employees from taking consecutive days off.
Today, workers in Boston voted 215 to 2 to approve a contract that includes an immediate $5 raise and beats back healthcare concessions, but does not include a Teamsters pension plan that workers fought for. Base hourly pay will rise from $28 an hour to $33 an hour, and increase by another $6 over the contract term. Workers also retained their current healthcare plan over a more expensive plan Sysco had previously proposed as a “final offer.”
In a press release, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters declared it a “phenomenal victory.” Workers In These Times spoke with said they supported the contract and are happy to get back to work but were “not popping corks;” they expressed disappointment about the pension and felt wage increases did not go far enough.
The solidarity those on the picket line received, especially from other Teamsters locals around the country, was “instrumental” in maintaining the morale needed to stay out on strike, workers in both cities tell In These Times. Politicians, Teamsters from other companies and Sysco customers — despite the impacts on their business — expressed sympathy and solidarity with the striking drivers.
If you’ve ever eaten at a U.S. restaurant, you’ve probably eaten food delivered by Sysco. The company’s signature giant trucks deliver staples like spices, poultry and produce to restaurants, hospitals and schools. Since its inception in 1969 — as a Goldman Sachs-funded merger of nine companies—Sysco has absorbed more than 150 competitors. According to the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-trust watchdog, Sysco now controls an estimated 30% of the broadline food distribution market. (Sysco estimates its market share is only 17%.)
As Boston workers began their strike October 1, more than 250 members of Arizona Teamsters Local 104 — who went on monthlong strike this summer after their contract expired — reportedly refused to work in solidarity.
Sysco Arizona quickly filed a lawsuit against the Teamsters, accusing the union of violating the ban on “secondary strikes” (which the pro-labor PRO Act would overturn if passed by the Senate). Sysco agreed to withdraw all lawsuits as part of the October 20 contract agreement.
Sysco did not respond to In These Times’ request for comment for this story by deadline.
The Boston-area workers dug their heels in after negotiations broke down October 5. The Teamsters rejected Sysco’s offer, which Trevor Ashley, a driver with Local 653, called “insulting.” Despite widely touted wage increases, Sysco originally wanted drivers to pay more of their paycheck for healthcare after five years, workers say, then outright refused to consider allowing Sysco workers to join the Teamsters’ pension plan.
The strike raged on. On Monday October 17, police arrested more than a dozen workers outside the Sysco distribution plant in Plympton, Mass., and allegedly prevented the picket from blocking access to the site.
Workers say Sysco sent out union-busting information to those on strike and pressured them to scab.
Striking drivers at Sysco Boston showed In These Times mass texts they said they’d received from the company. One message promised higher wages for returning to work. Another said that business was operating at full capacity, which drivers took to mean they’d been replaced by scabs.
The real message, according to one driver who shared the texts on condition of anonymity, is that Sysco was “telling us that they don’t care about our strike — about our collective opinion.”
Sysco brought in supervisors and drivers from other parts of the country. According to Ashley, these workers are all early in their employment and some say they were lied to by Sysco — told they were coming to help with a driver shortage rather than to break a strike. Ashley says the stress has caused some of the new drivers to go back home.
These actions did not weaken the resolve of the striking workers — many of whom were on the picket line for the first time.
For Joe Paradise, a driver who has worked at Sysco Boston for 8 years, retaining his current healthcare plan was one of the key strike demands that kept him out on the picket line. The original health care plan prevented his family going into debt when his wife was hospitalized with a miscarriage, he told In These Times.
The strikers were also buoyed by outside support. The picket in Plympton, Mass., swelled with supporters, including Teamsters from other companies like UPS.
Significantly, solidarity hasn’t just come from other workers. At a rally in Epping, N.H., on October 17, politicians including Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Sherman visited the picket line.
Restaurant owners are also siding with drivers; some, Ashley says, have said they won’t order from Sysco until they get their drivers back.
Sandra Cushing-Adams is the owner of the Midfield Café in Nashua, N.H., an area serviced by Sysco Boston. Cushing-Adams, who previously purchased 75% of her food and products from Sysco, was left scrambling during the strike.
When she asked her Sysco representative about the strike, he told her the company would send out a letter. Cushing-Adams says the letter shifted the blame for the strike to the drivers. “It was really a bash-the-driver thing,” she says.
As a business owner, Cushing-Adams says she understands Sysco’s position — but she’s ultimately more sympathetic toward the drivers, who are the face of the business and have to make a living.
David Castricone, a chef responsible for ordering food at a restaurant in Salem, N.H., echoes these sentiments. He says he wasn’t contacted by his Sysco representative until after the strike began, and was simply told his order couldn’t be guaranteed. “We can’t run a business that way,” he says.
“It’s not easy being a driver,” Castricone tells In These Times. “These guys have families. They don’t want to be on strike, not collecting a paycheck. But you also don’t want to work for unfair wages. I can’t blame them.”
Some Sysco customers have donated to a hardship fund launched by the Teamsters, according to warehouse worker Sean Miller. The crowdfunded effort raised more than $100,000 in less than 24 hours, with each driver offered a share of $1,500. Drivers at Local 653 also receive a weekly strike stipend of $450 from the union.
By contrast, Sysco CEO Kevin Hourican enjoyed a cool $23 million compensation package in 2021. That’s more than 300 times what Hourican pays his median employee—the workers he has called the “lifeblood” of Sysco. This year, Sysco boasted of having doubled its net earnings, achieved in part by furloughing or laying off a third of its pandemic workforce; it then spent billions on more acquisitions, stock buybacks and aggressive union busting.
Concerns about Sysco’s dominance in the market prompted advocacy and industry groups — led by the American Economic Liberties Project — to send a letter October 6 to the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, which alleges price gouging and other deceptive business practices by Sysco and other broadline distributors. “The consolidated foodservice distribution industry has been using the cover of pandemic-related supply-chain and inflation issues to flex its market power over its smallest customers — and thereby extract ever-more wealth from local communities,” the letter reads.
Moe Tkacik, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project who has worked with restaurant and business owners through the organization’s campaigns, explains that smaller restaurants tend to be treated with worse service and often receive “comical” food substitutions (Castricone recalls once ordering rice and receiving pomegranate juice). Sysco is “widely reviled” by customers, Tkacik tells In These Times.
“Sysco is running on an antiquated business model of being anti-worker, anti-union — and everybody sees it,” Miller says. “They’re treating us like the bottom of a balance sheet.”
Sysco has more than 40 individual contracts with the over 10,000 workers in the Teamsters. As more come up for renegotiation, the strikes may well spread — a possibility hinted at by every worker on strike In These Times spoke to.
“They seem to think we’re expendable,” Miller says. “I think they’re quickly coming to find out that we’re not.”
Eloise Goldsmith is a fact checker and intern with In These Times.
Rohan Montgomery is a fact-checker and intern at In These Times. He previously worked for The New Republic.