Louisville, Indianapolis Teamsters make gains in strike against Sysco

By Amy Husk
April 24, 2023
In Louisville, retired teacher Mary Thurman joins Sysco pickets April 6 with hot lunches she brought as an act of solidarity. Teamsters voted by 98% to approve new contract.
Militant/Amy HuskIn Louisville, retired teacher Mary Thurman joins Sysco pickets April 6 with hot lunches she brought as an act of solidarity. Teamsters voted by 98% to approve new contract.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Members of Teamsters Local 89 at Sysco here ratified a new contract April 8 by an overwhelming 98% vote. Some 100 truck drivers, who make food deliveries to area schools and businesses, had been on strike for 13 days over wages, benefits and brutal working conditions.

Teamsters in Local 135 in Indianapolis, who struck Sysco at the same time, also settled, voting 110-10 in favor of a new five-year contract April 10.

On April 6 Sysco management here threatened workers with arrest for “trespassing” if they didn’t move away from the entrance to its warehouse. The union members regrouped and set up their picket line at the end of the street leading to it. Members of amalgamated Teamsters Local 89, who work at a UPS facility on the same street, refused to cross their picket line.

Sysco is one of the largest food-delivery services, with 330 locations around the world and 170 in the United States. Company bosses have refused to negotiate a nationwide contract, forcing workers who organize in the union to fight for contracts city by city. Drivers here joined the Teamsters last year and this is their first contract.

“There are a lot of safety issues at Sysco,” Local 89 President Avral Thompson told me on the picket line April 6. “The trucks are so overloaded drivers can’t get to the freight to unload it. We demanded the back of the truck have 18 inches clearance so the driver has room. They refused.

“The Department of Transportation laws say a driver should get 10 hours off work after driving for 14, but the company gets around this sending out another driver while forcing the original driver to unload the truck,” he said. “Sometimes drivers work 18-20 hours.”

“I had been driving for 19½ hours the last time I got injured,” driver Emanuel Gilliam said. “I was trying to unload the truck and some boxes fell and I got a big gash on my leg. They told me to keep driving and they would get someone else to unload.

“This wasn’t the first accident I was involved in. The company wasn’t concerned about getting medical treatment for me. They just wanted to drug test me,” he said.

Mike Brown told me he has been driving for Sysco for eight years. “Things started getting bad two or three years ago,” he said. “They increased the number of cases and the number of stops. We used to carry 600 cases and now they might have us carry as many as 1,200. That means a longer day, sometimes 12, 13 or 14 hours. And a lot more accidents.”

Driver William Anderson said only two or three union drivers crossed the picket line.

The new contract includes an immediate pay increase of $4.35 an hour for delivery drivers and $5.35 for shuttle drivers. Wages will go up another $3.50 an hour by the end of the five-year agreement. Health care insurance premiums for workers were reduced to 20% of the cost, compared to 50% before.

As part of the new contract, Sysco Louisville must now hire nine additional delivery drivers and maintain a new minimum staffing level of 96. Anytime there are fewer than 96 drivers, the bosses will have to pay double time for all hours worked in excess of 13.

The drivers got a lot of support during the 13-day strike. Along with Local 135 members from Indianapolis, strikers here went to other Sysco facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Seattle, where workers honored their picket lines.

After voting up their first union contract, Thompson swore in all the drivers as the newest members of the Teamsters local.

A number of restaurants here refused delivery from trucks driven by scab workers. Many other workers came out to the picket line with food and solidarity, including Teamsters members from UPS, FireKing and Caesars Southern Indiana Casino, and United Auto Workers members who work at the big Ford truck plant here.

“It took us about a year to get to this point, but I don’t regret a single minute of it,” driver Cory Browning said. “We never gave up fighting, and Local 89 supported us every step of the way. We won a contract that’s going to change our lives, and we’ll only get stronger from here.”

Anthony Dutrow from Cincinnati contributed to this article.