Island Restaurants Brace For Impacts Of Sysco Truck Driver Strike

Jason Graziadei •

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Island restaurants are bracing for the impact of a strike by the truck drivers for Sysco, one of the primary food distribution companies that delivers products to Nantucket.

The Teamsters Local 653 union, which represents more than 300 workers at Sysco Boston, announced the "unfair labor practice" strike at midnight last Friday, stating the final contract offer from Sysco's management would strip its workers of high-quality health insurance and deny them their union pension.

Sysco's food delivery trucks are nearly ubiquitous in downtown Nantucket on most mornings, as the company - along with others like US Foods and Sid Wainer & Son - distributes to the island's restaurants, clubs, and other establishments.

"It is a big deal for Nantucket," said Greg Margolis, who runs The Corner Table with his wife Joy. "Something like this can really affect the island."

Margolis said The Corner Table gets about 75 percent of its products from Sysco. While some restaurants buy from a combination of different food distributors and local farms, Margolis said he had established a good relationship with Sysco and its drivers over the years, so he depends on them. The strike, however, will lead to some difficult decisions as he supports the union's right to walk off the job for better working conditions.

"I know they say they have calamity plans in effect but they're talking about bringing back retired drivers, people who haven't delivered to the island in 20 years, and management helping out," Margolis said. "For me it's important. I grew up in a union household, my wife did too. I've always supported unions...I hope to not have to order from Sysco. But realistically I can't get everything I need."

Last Friday morning, in the final hours before the strike, a Sysco truck driver was delivering boxes of food to the restaurants on Straight Wharf. While he asked to remain anonymous, the driver confirmed the strike was imminent, and told the Current "I hope US Foods can pick up the slack."

Margolis wasn't as hopeful.

"US Foods will try to, but if Sysco stops, US Foods could not pick up the slack," Margolis said. "They don't have enough drivers. There's certainly the potential for disruption."

Other island restaurants were also taking stock of the situation and assessing their options.

"My hope is that they will reach an agreement before it comes to a strike," said Debba Pitcock, the general manager and managing partner of The Rose & Crown, last Friday just before the strike was announced. "If they don't, we will adjust our ordering the way we need to to maintain our inventory. It's going to have an impact on all of us that use them. We already struggle this time of year when they cut back delivery days."

For its part, Sysco has sent a letter to island restaurants and others that buy products from the company that attempts to quell any concerns. They also called the union's contract demands "unreasonable" and claimed Sysco had offered wage increases of 25 percent over the life of the contract and affordable healthcare options that would save money for workers.

"We have rapidly implemented our business continuity plans to mitigate the impact to your business," said George Francis, Diane Habhegger, and Michael Calabrese, of Sysco Boston's management team, in the letter received by an island business.

Those plans include hiring "third-party driver resources to mitigate disruption to your business."

While Sysco's local drivers were not prepared to comment on the record, one of its workers on the mainland offered these thoughts regarding the decision to walk off the job.

"We are currently striking Sysco over unfair labor practice charges and economics, pension, wages, health care, the whole bit," said Trevor Ashley, a 20-year driver at Sysco Boston and member of Local 653. "We've been called essential workers for the longest time and now it's just empty words. We are working under grueling conditions. Some of us are working 14, 15, 16 hours a day, six days a week. We deserve more, and we aren't going to stop until we get it."

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