By Peggy Wang (APA, MTA/NEA – personal capacity)
Among the industries most vital to the economy is logistics and distribution, and one of its biggest players is Sysco. Sysco is the largest food distributor in the world, with an estimated 30% of the sector’s market sales in the U.S. alone [American Economic Liberties Project, 10/6/2022]. Its workers supply numerous schools, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and more. These workers have kept many of our workplaces and essential services afloat the past three years during COVID. Yet despite the fact that the company’s annual report showed profits for 2022 hit $1.4 billion, a 159.2% increase from 2021, the Sysco corporation is attempting to slash the benefits and pay of its workers.
10,000 Teamsters work for Sysco. The Houston-based company has grown drastically by buying up numerous other businesses over the past 50 years, even attempting to buy US Foods in 2013, which would’ve meant dominance of 75% of the U.S. food service industry. Sysco’s CEO and President Kevin Hourican received a compensation package totaling $23 million this year, a $4.3 million increase from last year.
The 300-plus members of the Sysco Boston Teamsters Local 653 who work in Plympton, MA weren’t about to accept cuts to their pay, health insurance, and benefits. They voted to go on strike on October 1st, joining the 200 Sysco workers in Syracuse from Teamsters Local 317 who walked off the job just a few days before. 250-plus Sysco workers in Arizona, members of Teamsters Local 104, who struck for a month in July, also joined the other two locals and struck again in solidarity with the Boston workers.
Teamsters from these various facilities pointed to unfair labor practices, removal of healthcare benefits, insufficient retirement benefits, forced overtime, and delaying and stalling tactics in negotiations as some of the reasons for striking. Their demand for wages that keep up with inflation is one that can be taken up by all workers.
ISG visited the Plympton workers a week into the strike on Oct 9, to express solidarity and talk with the workers. During our time on the picket, the police visibly outnumbered the picketers, with members from different police units brought in to ensure the 30 scabs could cross the picket line and conduct Sysco’s business. There was a large amount of support, with Teamsters from other locals present and others in different Sysco facilities promising to not cross the line if the strike spread to their worksites as well.
On Oct 17th, almost three weeks into the strike, and a couple days after the Sysco Syracuse Teamsters ratified a new contract and ended their own strike, the Sysco Boston Teamsters were joined on the picket line by fellow Teamsters from across New England and as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. The crowd of 400 union members blocked both entrances to the distribution center by parking two large trucks in the road. The 100 police in attendance cracked down on the workers, arresting thirteen of them.
Three days later, Sysco Boston workers voted 215-2 to ratify a five-year contract that provides an $11/hr raise over five years, with $5/hr of that raise implemented the first year of the contract. Starting from the current base pay of $28/hr workers would see a 39% increase over the course of the contract. The contract also secures improved retirement, overtime, holiday benefits, and beats back attacks on healthcare benefits the company had proposed. Sysco also agreed to withdraw all lawsuits and NLRB charges resulting from the strike.
Unfortunately, workers were not able to win back a pension plan Sysco froze years ago. And while the base hourly pay will be increased from $28/hr to $33/hr, and in five years time will be at $39/hr, many were disappointed by gains that felt insufficient with the current cost of living.
The Syracuse Teamsters, in their new contract, won a $7/hr increase for drivers and $6/hr increase for warehouse workers over the next five years. They also successfully defended the right to take consecutive days off and won limits to forced overtime of 16-hours days and 6-day workweeks. The company agreed to move back toward 8-hour days and 5-day workweeks.
The stark difference between the insufficient pay, long hours, and dangerous working conditions of logistics workers and the massive profits of logistics corporations shows how capitalism fails to provide a decent life for workers. Corporations are making record profits. Not only were large companies given massive handouts via ARPA and COVID Care funds, but they are now raking in as much as 25-37% more in profits year over year, more than any other time since the Fed started tracking profits in 1948. These corporations are only interested in short-term profits and have no interest in paying workers more. This short sighted pursuit of profit can even undermine the ability of companies to reliably supply their own goods and services, like when they cut jobs to temporarily boost their quarterly profits!
As the Teamsters gear up for the massive UPS contract negotiations on the horizon, we may well see more militant action be taken up by logistics workers. The contradiction of worsening living and working conditions alongside massive wealth hoarded by the capitalists raises the question of who benefits from the labor we as workers produce. Essential workers like those in logistics keep society running and the profits flowing. Workers can and are fighting for better conditions. We can temporarily win better wages, shorter work hours, and better benefits for all under capitalism if we organize and fight. We can only make our victories permanent by removing profit from the equation and taking democratic control of the economy through public ownership of major corporations, including logistics companies like Sysco, UPS, DHL, FedEx, and Amazon.