Union Sysco workers remain on strike as rippling financial impacts are felt beyond Indianapolis
Food is still rolling out of Sysco's Indianapolis distribution hub despite about 160 union workers striking in the midst of their second week.
Some customers now have to travel – for hours, in some cases, from places like Evansville – to pick up their product in unrefrigerated personal vehicles. And a few non-union workers are still making deliveries in the company’s refrigerated trucks.
As those workers drive past, crossing the picket line, union workers tell them to turn around, saying “we’d do it for you.” Some call them “scabs.”
Workers say they want better wages, benefits and shorter hours for drivers. Many, according to the union, work 14-hour days because their trucks are overfilled with deliveries.
“They continuously want us to work more hours, do more continuously unsafe operation of equipment with the standards that they have on us,” said employee Kenneth Helton. “You've got drivers out there 14, 15, 16 hours. In the warehouse, pretty much the same thing. We work two almost 12 hours every day. And it's continuously running hard to get the job done.”
The strike began because of Sysco’s alleged unwillingness to engage in good faith negotiations with the Teamsters.
“This is the first time since I've been here that we've ever had to go on strike,” Helton said. “They've always negotiated with the union, and this time they just don't want to do it.”
Helton has worked 26 years for Sysco, first as a driver and now, in the warehouse.
In statements, Sysco has turned accusations of bad-faith negotiations around on union leaders, saying their “unreasonable demands” are responsible for contract talks stalling out. The company claimed its proposed contract offered the union’s workers “top-of-market wages, lower health care costs and more vacation.”
"Sysco Indianapolis has implemented its contingency plans to quickly ramp up operations to serve our customers despite the Teamsters leadership’s actions to disrupt deliveries to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and local small businesses," said a Sysco spokesperson in a statement. "Sysco Indianapolis has also filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the National Labor Relations Board contesting Local 135’s bad faith bargaining actions."
The union has filed its own ULP charges with the NLRB against Sysco. And leaders dispute that contract demands come from them rather than their members. Indiana Public Broadcasting requested documents related to these charges via the Freedom of Information Act early last week, but the agency has yet to share them.
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Union workers and leaders said they believe food may be being handled improperly during the strike and should not be getting delivered, particularly in unrefrigerated vehicles. The union’s president said he called the health department over it.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Health said officials visited the facility last week “and found no irregularities.”
In a separate statement, a Sysco spokesperson said customers “take responsibility for product on pick up and are advised they should utilize appropriate means to keep product at food safe temperatures.”
The Teamsters Local 135 strike in Indianapolis began at 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 29.
The following morning, Teamsters in nearby Louisville, Kentucky also started striking against Sysco for their own, similar reasons. A few days later, a few California Teamster locals walked out of Sysco facilities there in solidarity. In total, almost 1,000 Teamsters have gone on strike at the company, according to the Teamsters International Union.
“We are going to do everything and anything we can to protect our people,” said Local 135 President Dustin Roach. “And if that means causing complete chaos in the Sysco system, we're going to do that.”
Negotiations remain stalled out as of Tuesday, according to the union.
“30 minutes away from here is US Foods, we represent a couple 100 members of US Foods,” Roach said. “Sysco is their number one competitor, Sysco makes billions more than US foods. And they're wanting our employees, our members to do the same work for less money.”
Last Friday, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett visited the picket line.
“As I said to those who are on strike here, a decent wage is not asking too much, good benefits is never asking too much,” Hogsett said. “I trust the union leadership and that they come to the table in good faith for decent wages and good benefits. And that's what I hope the company will recognize.”
When asked about how the strike has affected the city’s businesses and organizations, like schools, that rely on Sysco’s food deliveries, Hogsett said the impact has been “minimal” so far.
“Candidly, the longer it goes, the more impact it's going to have,” he said. “So that's why I'm here today, hoping that we can get this resolved sooner rather than later.”