Seventy-five warehouse workers and delivery drivers at a major regional food distributor in Fargo, North Dakota went on strike on Wednesday to protest their employer Cash-Wa's refusal to implement protections to curb the spread of COVID-19—prompting union officials to warn that there could be food supply disruptions at restaurants, schools, and hospitals throughout the Great Plains states.
The workers are employed by Cash-Wa—whose customers include Dairy Queen, Qdoba, Subway, Taco John's, Pizza Ranch, and four public school districts in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Altogether, Cash-Wa's customer-base includes more than 10,000 restaurants, hospitals, convenience stores, and schools across 10 states.
Since March, essential workers across the country have walked off the job at Whole Foods markets, Amazon warehouses, Taco Bells and McDonald's restaurants, and poultry packing plants to protest working conditions during the pandemic, some asking for hazard pay and others demanding protective gear. Few of these strikes have resulted in major commercial disruptions and product shortages—but as the workforce behind a massive food distribution company, the 75 striking Cash-Wa workers are in a unique position to disrupt a major supply chain if their employer refuses to provide them with more protections.
On Wednesday and Thursday, workers bundled in jackets stood outside the facility on the outskirts of Fargo, holding picket signs that read "On Strike Cash-Wa." Already 1 in 10 workers based in of the Cash-Wa facility in Fargo have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the union, as cases surge across the state.
"Workers are asking for temperature screenings, divisions between employees in break rooms, and adequate cleaning supplies," Brian Novak, a business representative at Teamsters Local 120, the union that represents the workers in Fargo, told Motherboard. "If there’s a COVID outbreak in the facility, it could transpire and end up getting out to the customers and spreading into the community. It could become a much broader issue than just North Dakota, and North Dakota is absolutely blowing up."
"Right now the company has not responded to our demands," Novak continued. "The strike will slow down the distribution of the product. It's not going to get to customers in a timely fashion. Workers are out on the picket line and supervisors and managers have been performing the work [of the strikers.]"
Cash-Wa "has repeatedly failed to take steps to keep their employees safe from the coronavirus—leaving workers with no other option," a press release from Teamsters Local 120 said. "Workers are concerned that their distribution center, located in Fargo, will become a virus hotspot and put the surrounding areas at risk for further spread."
Strikes are rare in North Dakota, thanks to low union membership and the state's right-to-work law that makes it challenging for unions to retain dues-paying members. Only six percent of North Dakota workers belong to a union. Striking workers at Cash-Wa's only unionized facility, the one in Fargo, say that after roughly four months of negotiations with the company over a new union contract and the mounting COVID-19 crisis in North Dakota, they were left "with no other option" other than to strike.
This week, North Dakota reported the COVID-19 highest death rate of any state or country in the world. More than one in every 1,000 North Dakotans have died from Coronavirus. The state has ranked first in the country for new COVID-19 cases per capita for the past two weeks.
Cash-Wa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.