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Sarasota Truck Drivers petition to join Teamsters

Written by on Saturday, March 9, 2024

The union filing comes shortly after their employer announced layoffs.

Correction: The union representation petition covers 82 UNFI drivers, NOT fork lift operators, selectors, loaders, receivers and inventory workers. Our audio report said otherwise.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Mar. 6, 2024

Host: Organizing by private-sector unions has been at historical heights in Florida lately. Workers at a big food distribution warehouse in Sarasota already had a list of grievances when they got some really bad news from their employer, and now they’re eager to join a union. Our news team has more.

Johannes Werner: Truck drivers for a wholesale food distributor in Sarasota yesterday filed with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election about being represented by the Teamsters union.

They got the overwhelming majority of employees to sign a petition, after management notified employees of layoffs.

United Natural Foods – known by its acronym UNFI – is a national company based in Providence, Rhode Island. At its facility in South Sarasota, the company employs 82 drivers.

Fork lift operators, selectors, loaders, receivers and inventory workers at the Sarasota warehouse are not included in the petition.

In Sarasota, UNFI is currently working out of an aging facility on McIntosh Road, near Clark. Last August, the company broke ground on a million-square foot warehouse and distribution center at the SRQ Logistics Center next to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. That new building features an automatized repacking system.

In a press release, the company said the facility includes “as much new technology and automation as possible”. It also touted “worker-friendly amenities” at the new warehouse. But apparently, all this came with plans to outsource jobs to JB Hunt, a logistics company.

Jeff Testa is a trustee and deputy director of organizing at Teamsters Local 79 in Tampa. He said employees were prompted into action after the company told employees they might be replaced by a contractor.

Jeff Testa: Up until last week, they thought their jobs were going to move to the warehouse, but they were called in individually in small groups by management last week, and they told them that we’re giving you a 60-day notice. We’re bringing in a third party trucking company to do your work. As a matter of fact, they’re bringing in JB Hunt to be the third party, and they’ve come to the reality that they may lose their jobs in 60 days.

JW: Testa says the UNFI workers were ready to organize even before that.

JT: Well, it’s an accumulation of grievances. The new warehouse really had nothing to do with it until recently. The main grievances the workers have had, and they came to us saying they needed help, there’s favoritism in the workforce; safety issues with their equipment and with their loads; job security; the bad dispatching of their loads; they have health insurance, are now paying more for and getting less coverage; and seniority and being overworked all the time are their main issues. They’re feeling frustrated and beat down.

JW: Employees or a union can file for a representation election after getting signatures from at least 30% of workers. The NLRB, a federal government agency that has an office in Tampa, then oversees the election. No election date has been set yet. A simple majority vote of the UNFI drivers would mean the Teamsters represent the food warehouse workers.

Roughly half of the more than 2,000 representation elections nationwide held last year ended up in favor of a union. That included five elections, when workers at United Natural Foods warehouses throughout the nation voted to join the Teamsters. That came despite a strong anti-union campaign by the company; UNFI has been paying millions to a consulting outfit in Orlando called Labor Pro. More than 3,500 United Natural Foods workers are now represented by the Teamsters.

Rendering of the new UNFI distribution center at the SRQ Logistics Center.

United Foods sent this in response to a request for comment by email: “UNFI has received the union’s petition and will respond to it through the National Labor Relations Board procedures”.

Testa said he was confident the representation election will be a winner for the Teamsters.

JT: We got an overwhelming amount of signatures from the workforce. We’re very confident that we are going to win this campaign. This particular group of employees — and I’ve been organizing with Local 79 for 20 years — this is the most fired up group of employees I’ve ever worked with. Here these guys have dedicated parts of their life, invested in this company, invested their time, and the company turns to them and says, tells them, “Hey. You’re going to be getting a notice shortly that we’re going to take your jobs in 60 days.” They’re pretty fired up. They’re pretty upset. So I have no doubt in my mind they’re going to stick around, they’re going to vote, and they’re going to do everything they can to try and save their jobs

JW: Testa also hopes that the filing will prevent UNFI from starting layoffs.

JT: While the timeline will be up to the NLRB when they set up for a vote, this petition has been filed. So hopefully it will put a hamper on the company being able to follow through with their plans of closing the doors and third partying the work in 60 days.

JW: Private-sector unions and workers in this area have been unusually active over the last year. UPS drivers in Sarasota picketed last summer during a nationwide strike that ended in a historic agreement in August. Joining five other Starbucks stores in Florida, baristas at a local store on University Parkway held a union representation election last summer that failed.

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.


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