Beer Battles: Workers in Belgium Take on Brewing Giant

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared on Toward Freedom.

For two weeks in January Belgian brewery workers blocked roads, set fire to beer crates, kidnapped managers and handed out free beer as part of their tactics against job cuts proposed by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer. The company announced the cuts in spite of profits of $1.55 billion in the third quarter of 2009.

"This is the ugly face of capitalism," Roger Van Vlasselaer, the leader of a major Belgian union told Time. "AB InBev are just thinking of their bottom line for shareholders, regardless of the social cost. There is no reason at all to fire people."

RTBF radio reported on January 8 that workers at the Belgian Jupiler brewery had taken 10 of their managers hostage, keeping them in a meeting room near the plant. Union member Marc Devenne told Belga news, "We are demanding that the [company's] senior managers come here and call off the lay-offs."

But the AB InBev beer monopoly appeared to be more interested in profit than workers’ rights or even the quality of its own beer. According to Theo Vervloet, chairman of the Belgian Brewers trade association, "AB InBev is thinking on a bigger scale and wants to go for volume rather than quality."

In 2004, Belgian Interbrew and Brazilian AmBev, the third and fifth biggest brewers at the time, merged to become AmBev, Don Monkerud explained in an article for Dissident Voice. In 2008, AmBev purchased Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion, and thus gained control of Budweiser, Michelob, Stella Artois and Bass. The AB InBev monopoly now controls 25 percent of the world’s beer.

The protests in Belgium began on January 7 when AB InBev announced it would cut 800 jobs in Western Europe, including 299 of its 2,700 jobs in Belgium. Belgian unions interpreted such policies as an attack on the rich brewing history and culture of the country (Belgium is home to over 125 breweries).

In response to the proposed cuts, workers set up walls of beer crates at the entrances of the country’s three main brewing locations, stopping the regional transport of beer, as well as the arrival of ingredients, bottles and packaging material.

AB InBev spokeswoman Karen Couck told VRT radio "[T]he storage facilities are full of beer that cannot be shipped out."

Because of the workers’ tactics, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe, three of the top beer brands, were running low throughout Belgium as well as in France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

A Confederation of Christian Trade Unions spokesman said that the managers were using lockouts in various locations throughout the country: "They kicked employees out into the streets and put chains on the gates."

During the protests and blockades, workers at one plant screened Michael Moore’s movie, Capitalism: A Love Story.

The workers’ strategies were successful in the end and the blockades were lifted after a compromise was reached on January 22 in which the management agreed to freeze the job cuts.

Though the other proposed cuts to impact AB InBev workers throughout Europe are still planned to move ahead, the workers’ victory in Belgium has already inspired other workers in the beer industry to pressure their bosses against cuts.

Following the AB InBev battle, workers at a Belgian Heineken plant took to the streets to protest the elimination of 43 of the 230 jobs at their brewery. Those workers also sealed off entrances to the plant until the bosses backed down on February 2. A union spokesperson told Reuters, "Management has said there will be no forced redundancies, which was our principal demand."

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