Last month in Chicagoland, 130 Teamster food-service drivers went on strike and secured major contract gains. The workers won by extending the picket line nationwide, hitting employer US Foods at dozens of distribution centers across the US.

Members of Teamsters Local 705 gather around a fire during their strike in Bensenville, Illinois. (Teamsters / X)

While most Chicagoans were bracing for a major snowstorm, 130 truck drivers who deliver food from warehouses to cafeterias and kitchens spent the first weekend in January preparing for another kind of storm: a strike.

US Foods had stalled negotiations over wages, health care, and safety provisions. At 12:01 a.m. on Monday, January 8, Teamsters Local 705 picket lines went up at the Bensenville, Illinois, facility.

Over the next three weeks, Teamsters extended the Bensenville line nationwide. Rolling pickets hit more than two dozen US Foods distribution centers and drop yards from Los Angeles to Indiana to New Jersey, paralyzing its operations in some of the nation’s highest-volume markets.

On January 25, the company buckled. Local 705 announced a new five-year agreement that includes $7 an hour wage increases (with $3 coming in the first year), increases to health and welfare contributions, and new safety language requiring clearance gaps on fully loaded trailers. US Foods also retracted a proposal that would have made it easier to fire drivers for traffic accidents. Members ratified the deal with a 93–27 vote on February 3.

Other unions should take note of the militant tactic that the Teamsters used to win: picket line extensions that expanded a local contract dispute into a national fight.

Using “Protection Rights” To Win

The Teamsters represent US Foods drivers and warehouse workers across the country. But unlike at UPS, where workers are covered by a single national collective bargaining agreement, there are dozens of contracts between local unions and individual facilities.

Food service distribution giants like US Foods and Sysco often take advantage of these separate contracts — with separate expiration dates — to avoid the threat of market-wide work stoppages and play divide and conquer on standards.

However, many Teamsters contracts include “protection rights” provisions (the contract articles are titled “Protection of Rights”), which expressly allow workers to honor primary picket lines if they should encounter them in the course of their work. (Primary picket lines are those that target the employer with whom the union has a dispute.) That includes pickets extended by workers at the same company working under a different contract at a different facility.

Other unions should take note of the militant tactic that the Teamsters used to win: picket line extensions that expanded a local contract dispute into a national fight.

In principle, any person, union or nonunion, has a protected right under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) to honor a primary picket line. The section of the LMRDA that prohibits secondary activity even expressly exempts sympathy strikes (29 U.S.C. § 158(b)(4)).

However, in most union contracts, aspects of these rights are specifically waived or protected. The combination of “No Strike/No Lockout” clauses and “Protection of Rights” clauses defines what exactly is or isn’t allowed with respect to primary picket lines extended to the employer’s place of business.

Kept the Company Guessing

Protection rights language can be complicated, with additional requirements around timing and advance notices that need to be fulfilled before an extended line can be honored. But with careful planning and preparation, a struck facility can send members out to key facilities covered by contracts with protection rights. This can be an effective way to expand the scope of the conflict and bring the employer back to the table.

The Bensenville drivers extended their line to Teamster-represented distribution centers and drop yards in a series of rolling national pickets, lasting on average forty-eight hours. The “guerilla” tactic of rolling lines kept the company guessing about where the next extension would go up and made it virtually impossible for US Foods to plan for scabs to keep its operations going.

Management’s countertactic was to file a lawsuit against Teamsters locals representing workers at the La Mirada, California, facility where the line was extended, alleging violations of the no-strike clause in their contracts.

Employers commonly file these lawsuits regardless of their merit, betting that legal fees it would take to fight it out in court will cause smaller and midsize local unions to withdraw support. Typically a strike settlement will include amnesty agreements that drop associated lawsuits.

However, the lawsuit was too little, too late. The disruption of national operations brought US Foods back to settle with the Bensenville drivers on the workers’ terms.

Plenty To Go Around

US Foods is a major player in the food service delivery industry and a choke point in the consumer supply chain. It employs warehouse workers who load trucks with fresh food, and drivers who deliver them, stop by grueling stop, often with nothing more than a handcart, to tens of thousands of restaurants, cafeterias, caterers, hospitals, and schools.

The three largest food service distribution firms, Sysco, Performance Food Group, and US Foods, employ one hundred thousand workers at eight hundred distribution facilities. Together they generated $140 billion in revenue and $20 billion in profits in 2022.

The disruption of national operations brought US Foods back to settle with the Bensenville drivers on the workers’ terms.

US Foods employs eighteen thousand production and nonsupervisory workers nationwide; currently around seven thousand are Teamsters. Its annual revenues have grown by $10 billion over the past five years, reaching $34 billion in 2022. The company pulled in $4 billion in profits from 2020 to 2022, and spent $31 million on stock buybacks in 2022 alone.

The Bensenville strike followed weeks of stalled negotiations. In a statement posted on Facebook on January 8, Local 705 wrote: “This drastic action comes in response to US Foods’ blatant bad faith bargaining, coupled with their disgraceful decision to hoard profits, diminish health care, and compromise the safety of the very drivers who have been pivotal in achieving record profits for the company.”

Steps Toward Coordinated Bargaining

In 2021, Teamster members elected Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman to take the international union in a more aggressive direction.

Making full use of protection rights language to extend picket lines has become a hallmark of the new militant approach in the Teamsters Warehouse Division, which represents 400,000 workers. Warehouse Division director Tom Erickson, who was elected as a vice president on the O’Brien-Zuckerman slate, has been a vocal proponent of coordinated bargaining.

This strategy, long advocated by the national rank-and-file movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union, has been paying dividends. Last year the union took on Sysco with similar tactics, including waiting out the period between contract expirations and extending picket lines using protection rights. Workers in Syracuse, Phoenix, and Brockton, Massachusetts, won wage increases of up to $11 an hour, another paid holiday (Martin Luther King Jr Day), and more. Other coordinated strikes won contracts with big gains in Louisville and Indianapolis.

Extending picket lines nationwide gives workers a practical experience of solidarity and coordination. The lines of communication opened between union leaders and workers at different locations often give unions a better edge on raising standards nationwide.

Coordinating on strikes to raise standards at an employer builds momentum for coordinated bargaining, where multiple contracts with the same or similar employers line up expirations and coordinate proposals and negotiations. That could be a step toward winning master agreements from big employers.

In theory, coordination can go even further. The United Auto Workers recently highlighted the potential power of aligned expirations across industries, publicly inviting other unions to line up their contract expirations with the Big Three automakers in 2028.

The path to national contracts, sectoral power, and sectoral bargaining leverage is slow and difficult. But increasing union willingness to use protection rights and other coordination tactics is a promising trend.

A Strategic Target

The contract win in Chicagoland will keep the momentum going for the Teamsters’ ongoing organizing drive in food service distribution.

Since 2020, the union has scored nineteen election victories at US Foods — unionizing hundreds of new members, negotiating first contracts, and solidifying its foothold in the industry.

The contract win in Chicagoland will keep the momentum going for the Teamsters’ ongoing organizing drive in food service distribution.

Food service distribution workers have many reasons to unionize. These jobs are physically demanding, with routes that often take fourteen to sixteen hours to complete. Both drivers and warehouse workers are often overworked on irregular schedules, assigned excessive loads, and subjected to harassment and surveillance.

Food service distribution is a key link in the supply chain for huge industries. Hotel chains, hospitals, and school districts that have large contracts with US Foods and similar companies demand uninterrupted service to keep their kitchens running. After losing a lot of money in spoiled food when customers shut down during the pandemic, distributors have shaved down their inventory levels even further to mitigate risk. So workers in this industry have a tremendous amount of leverage.

And while these workers are affected by encroaching surveillance technology, they’re fairly robust against automation; restaurant delivery is ill-suited to it. Most drivers operate a handcart down irregular staircases with complicated loading and picking on and off the truck. It’s hard to imagine introducing laborsaving technology on the delivery end.

Unlike many manufacturing and consumer goods industries, food delivery can’t be relocated or outsourced. Because of the products’ relatively short shelf life, distribution centers must remain close to large urban population centers. These are stable jobs.

All these factors, plus the fact that the Teamsters already have a strong foothold in the industry and some impressive contractual gains to point to, should make organizing the remaining food service distribution workers a strategic priority for the labor movement.

Virtuous Circle of Coordination

Several more contracts between US Foods and Teamsters locals will expire in 2024 — and the long shadow of the successful coordination on the Bensenville strike will likely make bargaining go a lot smoother for these Teamsters.

Other locals can now demand the higher standards won through militant action in the Local 705 contract. Company executives have surely taken notice that the union is willing to expand a local dispute into a nationwide strike. And the members and local unions have proven to each other, too, that they’re willing to back each other up.

Original post

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NESLETTERS

We’d love to keep you updated with the latest news 😎

We don’t spam!

Leave a Reply

We use cookies

Cookies help us deliver the best experience on our website. By using our website, you agree to the use of cookies.

Thank you for your Subscription

Subscribe to our Newsletter