Labor

Is the Beer You Are Drinking This Weekend Union Made?

Labor groups keep websites of union made beer for the discerning consumer, but a Canadian boycott of LaBatt products highlights a disturbing reality about the corporations behind our suds.

Photo Credit: flickr: Steve Jurvetson

Summer  is a season best celebrated with barbeque, fireworks, and great quantities of beer (although the latter two are usually best when unmixed).  This holiday weekend, in particular, allows for an prolonged period of indulgence. But how to choose your beverage? The average American consumer is presented with a bewildering array of beers. Preference depends on a wide variety of factors: Taste, tradition, regional pride, which ads have seeped deepest into our unconscious, and the lateness of the hour. For some, drinking union-made may give their beery binges the righteousness of the just. (A feeling that is often further inflamed after beer number three.)

There are a number of ways of figuring out whether a particular brand is union-made. In the past, cans and bottles would prominently feature the Union Label. Some still do, although today it’s usually hidden away in the small print. The AFL-CIO put up a list of union-made booze on their website for those who care to look. Most of the big names are there. Miller products made by members of the United Auto Workers and The Teamsters: High Life (now decorated with images of a Harley, another union-made product), Miller Genuine Draft, and that elixir of the people, Milwaukee’s Best. The Machinists and Teamsters handle a bunch of Anheuser-Busch’s products: Rolling Rock, Shock Top, the Old Glory-swathed Budweiser, and the sober drinker’s tipple O’Doul’s.  A more extensive list on Labor 411 includes Moosehead, Hamms, Lionshead, and, god help us, Olde English 800.  

There are several foreign brands on the list too, chiefly Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, and Canada’s LaBatt’s Blue, whose titular company has recently been in the news because of a boycott against its brewery in St. Johns (the capital city of the Newfoundland and Labrador province). The plant’s 45 workers have been on strike since April 10 because the company asked them to train their own replacements mere days before end of their contract. Although the sides have come to the table multiple times, no agreement has been reached. “This employer has made no indication what so ever that they are willing to negotiate fairly,” says Carol Furlong, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), which represents the workers. Meanwhile the plant is being operated by scab labor, so the beer is still flowing. 

In response NAPE declared a boycott against “Labatt’s imported products in order to prevent the brewing company’s other unionized employees in Canada from experiencing any loss of work.” Beers on the Canadian boycott list include Stella Artois, Becks, Hoegaarden, and Boddingtons.  (In Newfoundland and Labrador the boycott covers all Labatt/AB Inbev made in the province.) What does that mean, if anything, for Americans trying to kick back and enjoy a beer or six this holiday weekend? 

There is no AFL-CIO boycott against LaBatt. And Stella Artois, Becks, Hoegaarden are still on the federation’s union made page. (NAPE insists Canada’s imports of Stella Artois and Hoegaarden do not come from the United States anyway.) So the short answer is that you can probably still drink, say, Becks, to your heart’s content.  But the more complicated answer, which will have little implications for the next three days beery revelries, lies in the massive consolidation of the companies that supply the nation, and much of the world, with ice cold ones.

The bewildering array of beers mentioned earlier are actually something of a mirage. As Tim Heffernan expertly lays out in the November/December 2012 Washington Monthly, over the course of the aughts the world’s “seven giant brewing conglomerates”—four domestic, three foreign—consolidated into two mega-corporations, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors (only Miller products are produced in organized breweries, Coors busted their unions before the joint venture). Both of these giants own a multitude of brands, including big domestics, craft brews, and international brands like Stella Artois, which was owned by the InBev company that purchased Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion in 2008. Combined these two companies sell between 80-90 percent of U.S. beer. (Sam Adams is one of the few well known companies to exist outside their purview, along with a multitude of craft breweries, most of them non-union.)   

In the wake of this massive consolidation, cut backs and, occasionally, labor strife followed. In 2010 Anheuser-Busch InBev workers in Belgium struck over layoffs, briefly taking their managers hostage, barricading access to breweries, and giving away free samples by the crateful. The workers were eventually successful in winning a firing freeze, but the company’s plan to eliminate 10 percent of its workforce in Western Europe continued apace outside Belgium. This was part of a wider initiative to cut costs by over $1 billion across the company—which has significant presence throughout Europe, Latin America, Russia, and China. This was accomplished largely through sales of non-essential assets (See: Seaworld), plant closings, and thousands of layoffs. Executive bonuses were made contingent upon dramatic debt reduction and by 2011 they were already awarding themselves with $1.33 billion in bonuses.

The labor struggle at Labatt seems to be motivated by different factors. Anheuser-Busch InBev’s debt from the 2008 takeover is no longer an issue, but according to a 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek profile Carlos Brito, the company CEO, isn’t particularly good at selling beer: “He has increased revenue and profit, but he has done so almost entirely by raising prices and cutting the cost of making the product.” 

“InBev, the parent company of LaBatt, enjoys profits of billions of dollars annually and yet for their own workers they seek concessions while they are seeking greater profits,” says Furlong. “This isn’t an employer who is seeking concessions out of necessity, this is an employer who simply wants workers to have less. This is not about debt, this is a case of corporate greed. They are doing it because they want more money. They are doing it because they believe they can and because they believe they have the ability and right to do it.”

Of the beers on the U.S. union made list, many are Anheuser-Busch InBev’s products: Becks, Bass, Goose Island, Hoegaarden, Land Shark, and every Budweiser product, to name a few. How long before the company’s relentless desire to cut costs will reach their breweries? According to Amy Mittelmen, author of the 2007 book Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer most of the big American breweries are organized because the brewery workers unions of the early-to-mid-20th centuryreally fought and established themselves in the industry and that stuck.” But like the rest of the American labor movement, there hasn’t been much, if any, new organizing in recent decades.

Even though the St. John's brewery is LaBatt's smallest operation in Canada, NAPE sources report that they have received overwhelming support from other brewery workers throughout the country.  The attempt to dismantle their small bargaining unit may simply be a sign of things to come for brewery workers in Canada and internationally. NAPE reports letters of solidarity and donations to the strike fund from brewery workers across the world: Argentina, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, Belgium. The Teamsters send $10,000 in support. But it remains to be seen if this outpouring of support and the Canadian boycott will be enough to defeat a management backed by a mega-corporation that claims to be “one of the world’s top five consumer products companies.”  So enjoy that union made Olde English while you can.

 

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.