More than 160 union truck drivers and warehouse workers started a strike late Sunday at food distribution giant Sysco in Indianapolis. The union alleges the company has been unwilling to fairly negotiate a contract that expired March 3.
“We've worked… to find ways to present things and lessen our offer to try to entice them to discuss what they're really willing to give us or that we've earned that we're worth,” said Mike Fisher, 15-year Sysco driver and union steward. “And really, we just hear 'no,' and that's about it. So it's been very frustrating.”
Teamsters Local 135 workers and leaders say they are seeking a contract that gives them better wages and benefits as well as addressing long work hours for truck drivers.
“You're dealing with customers, you are dealing with traffic, and obviously being a tractor trailer truck driver,” Fisher said. “And you just have to have the physical strength to unload eight to 10 tons of groceries by hand up and down a ramp through all kinds of weather 365 days a year. So it's a very physically, mentally and emotionally demanding job.”
Drivers are on the road making deliveries “more than 12 hours a day and consistently working 60-70 hours a week,” said Jeff Sperring, Local 135 business agent and co-chair of negotiations, in an interview earlier this month.
Sperring and other Local 135 leaders allege Sysco refuses to engage with union negotiators, including allegedly leaving them waiting in a lobby for hours during a scheduled bargaining session.
That led to workers voting to authorize a strike about two weeks ago. Strike authorization votes don’t guarantee a strike will happen, it just gives a union the ability to call for a strike in the future – which Local 135 did at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Join the conversation and sign up for the Indiana Two-Way. Text "Indiana" to 73224. Your comments and questions in response to our weekly text help us find the answers you need on statewide issues.
Tim Courtney, also a business agent and co-chair of negotiations for the union, said their last conversation with Sysco negotiators following the authorization vote “was they just didn't see any reason for us to meet.”
“So we didn't get any closer and kind of target spinning our wheels with them,” he said. We’d just like for them to come to the table and do the right thing for us.”
In a statement to Indiana Public Broadcasting after the authorization vote, Sysco denied allegations of bad-faith negotiations.
“Sysco Indianapolis has, and will continue, to bargain in good faith with Teamsters Local 135,” said a spokesperson in the statement. “We have not reached an agreement to date due to the unreasonable demands by the union leadership.”
Teamsters Local 135 President Dustin Roach pushed back on the assertion that the union's demands were unreasonable.
“It's not me, it's my members, my people. And [Sysco’s negotiators are] just not hearing them,” Roach said. “The company is, we feel like, surface bargaining. They're not addressing our members' issues and concerns. But mainly, they're breaking the law.”
Roach alleged the company fired a union steward several months ago without providing the union information and has been intimidating workers to keep them from striking, which could violate federal labor law. He said the union has filed charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.
“If they would engage in bargaining in good faith, not break the law, we wouldn't be here today,” Roach said. “They're slapping her people in the face with wage increases that they're offering them [and by] wanting us to be regressive on the [contract] language.”
UPDATE: In a statement provided Monday afternoon, Sysco accused union leaders of bad-faith negotiations and claimed its proposed contract offered them “top-of-market wages, lower healthcare 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," a Sysco spokesperson wrote. "Sysco Indianapolis has also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board contesting Local 135’s bad faith bargaining actions."