Above Photo: “It was old school—unions shutting the thing down,” said UPS Teamster Greg Kerwood, who came down from Boston to lend solidarity to the Sysco strikers and was one of 13 arrested. Thomas Curtin.
Plympton, Massachusetts – Teamsters in Plympton, Massachusetts, won their strike at America’s largest wholesale food distributor with an old-fashioned militant tactic: the mass picket line.
The Sysco strike broke out on October 1. At first there were 100 workers, each with a picket sign, walking a little circle in the driveway leading to the warehouse.
But in the early morning of Monday, October 17, a throng of fellow Teamsters swelled the crowd to 400. A dozen positioned their tractor-trailers athwart exits to block scabs from leaving and entering. Thirteen workers got arrested.
And three days later, Teamster Local 653 members ratified a new contract, 215-2, with an $11 boost in pay over five years, improved retirement, and untouched health insurance benefits.
Sysco drivers and warehouse workers supply poultry and produce to restaurants, hospitals, and schools. Nationwide, more than 10,000 of them are Teamsters.
The Massachusetts strike was part of a round of coordinated bargaining. Sysco Teamsters also won new contracts in Arizona and in Syracuse, where they scored a $7 pay boost and defeated the company’s plan to break up the weekend for new hires.
The 250 Sysco Teamsters at Local 104 in Arizona had refused to work October 3 and 4 in support of their fellows in Massachusetts—even after securing their own contract with a month-long strike.
Other Teamsters leafleted Sysco customers in Chicago, Minnesota, and Los Angeles.
“We’re working together to make sure that employers know we are one union, and we fight,” said Local 653 Business Agent Bryan Voci.
‘A Magical Feeling’
Forty miles north in Boston, UPS driver Greg Kerwood got the call on Sunday for the mass picket.
“It was old school—unions shutting the thing down,” he said. “It’s a magical feeling, the solidarity and the power that comes with it; the connection that’s made by standing together shoulder to shoulder, holding the line.
“There’s no question that the victory for the Sysco workers was a direct result of Monday’s action. And that’s the kind of power workers have, if we can get to the point where we realize it and we use it.”
Kerwood arrived at 1 a.m. Monday morning. But it wasn’t until 2 a.m. that the convoy of trucks rolled in—some from his own Local 25, and others from Rhode Island, Philadelphia, and as far away as Minnesota.
“We were up the driveway in front of where the trucks came rolling in, honking their horns,” he said. “Everybody could see them coming. We all ran down the hill to them.
“We had about 400 Teamsters and about 100 police officers and a whole line of Teamster trucks. The police were mixed in with us and surrounding us, and we were surrounding them, and it was like a dance for about two hours.
“At some point, the police decided that they were going to open up the road and let the Sysco trucks through, and they brought the wagons in. They huddled up like a football team. Then they turned around, locked arms, and said, ‘You guys got five seconds to move, or we’re gonna start arresting people.’
“That’s when they started to push forward. We didn’t move, and they grabbed some of the leadership, some of the rank and file, and threw them in the wagon.”
Kerwood was among those arrested. “It’s not anything heroic,” he said. “It just so happened that I was in the front.”
Voci confirmed that only 13 people were arrested, and they were charged with disorderly conduct; a police statement had inflated the number and misreported the charges as assault and battery.
Still, “it was unjust for the cops to even overstep the line and arrest them,” said Voci, who was also among those detained. “Picketers were walking in solidarity. They were continuously moving, expressing their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”
Won A 39 Percent Raise
The ratified contract in Plympton includes an immediate pay bump of $5. The current yearly salary of $80,080 will rise 39 percent to $111,540 by the end of the contract. With soaring inflation driving up the prices of gas and food, workers are demanding pay hikes that keep up with these spiraling costs of living.
Sysco can afford it. The company raked in $68 billion in sales last year, with net earnings of $1.4 billion, according to the company’s 2022 annual report. CEO Kevin Hourican hauled in $23 million.
The company had tried to force health care concessions, but the Plympton workers kept their current coverage and workers are still responsible for 20 percent of premiums. The contract also adds overtime language where sick days, personal days, and holidays count towards the overtime threshold for the week.
Workers didn’t get on the Sysco pension plan. But the 60 members who had made contributions to the pension plan before it was frozen years ago will get two of their best years credited to the plan. “So if an individual made a hundred grand on those two years, it equals out to about $250 a month for the rest of their life added into their existing pension,” said Voci.
The other members won an increase in the employer’s contribution to their 401k retirement plan.
Shot Across The Bow
Kerwood and 350,000 Teamsters at UPS are gearing up for a potential strike next year at the second-largest private sector employer in the country. The 15-day strike at UPS in 1997 cost the company roughly $620 million—the equivalent of more than $1 billion today.
The Sysco strike is meant to signal the union’s renewed fighting spirit. “Corporations will fear the Teamsters,” said General President Sean M. O’Brien in a press release. “Any company that bullies workers will be met with the full firepower of this union.
“Our momentum cannot be stopped. We still have open contracts around the country, and we will strike again and again to protect our members.”