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Chicago Restaurants Worry About Food Supplies Due to Sysco Strike

Unionized workers out of a Sysco warehouse in Des Plaines walked off the job Monday

A truck with a colorful cab with produce.
A Sysco strike involving 125 warehouse workers is making restaurant owners nervous.
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

A strike in suburban Chicago has restaurant owners across the city on edge. About 125 warehouse workers at a Sysco warehouse in northwest suburban Des Plaines began a work stoppage on Monday morning. About 200 Sysco truck drivers joined their colleagues with their own sympathy strike, which has disrupted food deliveries all over town.

The strike is in its second day and has restaurant owners worried that they won’t get their normally scheduled deliveries. Sysco, the largest food distributor in North America, also serves schools and hospitals, and its reps have told restaurant owners that those vital facilities will be prioritized, therefore restaurants should expect delays.

Sysco sells and delivers a variety of goods to restaurants including fresh produce, frozen items, and meat. The famous burger served at Au Cheval in West Loop even uses Sysco beef patties.

The warehouse workers have been working without a contract since February 2020, but the two sides renewed negotiations in January. However the last eight months of talks haven’t been fruitful, leading to Monday’s strike. Members of Teamsters Local No. 703 say, via a news release, that “almost no progress has been made due to the unwillingness of the employer to bargain in good faith.” The union says more than 99 percent of membership voted in favor of striking.

“These warehouse workers have been working without a contract, day-in and day-out, keeping American schools, restaurants, hospitals and more stocked with food and supplies,” Jake Berent of Teamsters Joint Council No. 25, the regional body that supports local unions like No. 703, told Eater Chicago. “These workers were pushed too far by the employer, and enough was enough. The disrespect Sysco is showing towards these workers, whom its CEO referred to as ‘heroes’ just one year ago, is simply disgusting.”

A group of striking workers outside.
Sysco warehouse workers are on strike in Des Plaines.

Sysco sent a letter to restaurant clients on Monday stating that “most deliveries will not occur today, and many will be impacted for the remainder of this week.” They also said they’re bringing in workers from other warehouses and third parties to dampen the impact of the strike. Management rejects the union’s claims that it was bargaining in bad faith, sending the following statement to Eater Chicago:

We are extraordinarily disappointed that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 703 has decided to walk out on Sysco and our customers, at a time when our customers need us the most. We believe in negotiating in good faith and a key pillar of our approach is a strong belief that it’s in our best interest to provide our associates a fair and competitive wage and benefit package.

The union’s decision to strike is based on their insistence to include illegal language into the contract terms. Their decision to strike is NOT based on terms that are directly related to the interests of our associates’ pay, benefits or operating requirements. Through their actions, the union is halting our business, sacrificing our associates’ wages and hurting our customers.

While we continue to bargain in good faith and work toward a resolution, Sysco Chicago has rapidly implemented our business continuity plans to continue serving our customers.

Restaurant owners tell Eater Chicago that they’re nervous and worried about their businesses long term if the strike extends. Short term, they can rely on finding supplies at places like Restaurant Depot and hope that Sysco’s competitors, like US Foods, can fill in gaps in services. But there’s also concern that workers at US Foods could elect to strike. There’s also worry that US Foods may not be equipped to deal with an increase volume of orders: The same worker shortage that’s affecting restaurants nationwide is also affecting other adjacent industries.