It’s good to be the king, but this past year was anything but good to the King of Beers. Anheuser-Busch InBev kicked off the year sharing Super Bowl air with longtime rival Miller Lite and Coors Light for the first time in three decades. In March, it slashed jobs in the craft brewing portfolio it spent hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade to build. And April will forever be remembered as the cruelest month for ABI, as conservative operators launched a bigoted backlash at Bud Light over a social media video from trans performer Dylan Mulvaney that is only now beginning to ebb. 2023 was the year the world’s biggest macrobrewer bent the knee to bigots, gave up ground to rivals, and repeatedly showed its ass.

2024 isn’t looking so “new year, new you” for ABI at the moment, either. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) covering 5,000 Teamsters at the company’s 12 breweries across the country just voted to walk off the job at the end of February unless ABI makes contractual commitments on job security and wages. Not ideal for a company in desperate need of a fresh start and some good publicity.

“We won’t work a day past Feb. 29,” vows David Steinberg, a 22-year worker at ABI’s Jacksonville plant repped by Teamster Local 947, in a recent phone interview. “Everybody is on board. Everybody is ready to get a good contract.”

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If not, he says, expect picket lines. Teamsters across the country are already practicing.

Bud Light’s historic sales slide dominated headlines for most of the year, so for those Hop Takers who are just now getting apprised of this other dramatic plot line in the ABI corporate universe, a quick recap is in order. The company opened this round of contract negotiations with the Teamsters in mid-September. The existing CBA, inked in the heady pre-pandemic days of 2019, expires on Feb. 29, 2024. That timeline was preordained, but it couldn’t have worked out worse for ABI, and not just because it limped to the bargaining table with (mostly self-inflicted) wounds from l’affair de Mulvaney.

Pro-labor sentiment is polling at highs unseen since the ‘70s, with more and more people viewing unions as a necessary corrective to the various interrelated fuckeries stalking the American twilight. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters dominated the headlines all spring as it negotiated a landmark contract with United Parcel Service under credible threat of a 300,000-member strike. The Writers Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA, the United Auto Workers, and more kept the labor movement on front pages for the rest of the year with powerful, popular work stoppages and collective actions. Starbucks Workers United took all the well-polished corporate joy out of Red Cup Day to force the coffee giant back to the bargaining table. And so on.

“Across the U.S., labor unions are winning surprisingly large contract settlements as workers have reset their expectations to demand considerably more than they did just a few years ago, and that has in turn pressured many corporations to reset – and increase – the pay packages they are giving in union contracts,” wrote veteran labor journalist Stephen Greenhouse in an October column for The Guardian. “Call it the Great Reset.”

A reset sounds great to Jeff Padellaro, director of the Teamsters’ Brewery, Bakery, and Soft Drink Conference and the union’s lead negotiator at the bargaining table with ABI. The goal with this contract, he told Hop Take in late September, was “resetting the clock” on wages, on tiered healthcare, on retiree benefits — on everything. After walking away from the table in early November over proposals on those latter two items that Teamster negotiators deemed unacceptable, the parties have reached tentative agreements (TAs, in the jargon) there. But just two weeks later, on Nov. 16, Padellaro says ABI signaled it was ready to talk about job security — an item that Teamsters’ internal polling indicates is a major priority to the 5,000-strong rank and file — then abruptly sent its negotiating team home instead.

It was a “surprising” move to the Teamster director, who’s been involved in collective bargaining with Anheuser-Busch since 1998 (a full 10 years before InBev came along), and one that suggests his opposite numbers missed the memo on the union’s small-d democratic return to labor militancy. ABI’s genuinely significant concession on health care may have been enough to get the old Teamsters to swallow deficient offers on “economics,” but no more. Steinberg, of Local 947, sat in on the negotiating session in which ABI agreed to eliminate tiers (a widely loathed contract structure within the labor movement that excludes some workers from benefits others get) in the Teamster workers’ health care plans, and calls it “a huge win.”

But ABI must still “put its money where its mouth is,” Steinberg says, emphasizing that he and his coworkers are adamant about winning increased wages to offset rising costs and to reward extraordinary working conditions during the pandemic. Steinberg points to the billion-dollar stock buyback program ABI announced in late October, and the $100 million marketing deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as evidence that ABI has the dough but doesn’t want to spend it on labor. “There’s plenty of money there for us to get a great contract,” he says.

Teamster workers, who comprise some 25 percent of ABI’s overall U.S. workforce, also want job security commitments in this contract in light of ABI’s handling of the Bud Light debacle. “We saw big drops in volume, and that cuts back our overtime work on the weekends, which affects our pay,” he says, referring to the effects of the flagship brand’s many stumbles since April. The Teamsters are wary of U.S. workers being end-arounded by ABI’s global supply chain, too: Padellaro tells Hop Take the union is pressuring ABI for guarantees that it won’t use its “capacity to import and export” to offshore union members’ jobs in the future — the reverse of what it did with Belgian brand Stella Artois, which is now produced in the U.S. — though he did not provide specifics.

ABI declined to make anyone available for an interview for this column. “We are committed to negotiating in good faith with the union to reach an agreement that recognizes and rewards the talent, commitment, and drive of our employees,” a spokesperson tells Hop Take via email.

Just because that’s boilerplate doesn’t mean it’s bullshit, but the Teamsters aren’t taking any chances. Late last week, the union announced that 99 percent of its 5,000 members at ABI had voted to authorize a strike if the firm’s last, best, and final contract offers aren’t good enough. “If Anheuser-Busch’s executives can’t get their act together to negotiate an agreement that respects workers, we will see them out on the streets,” Teamster General President Sean O’Brien said in a statement. (O’Brien, who architected the UPS victory, has done his part to keep the union front-of-mind since, including an instantly viral exchange with red-assed Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma in mid-November.)

A strike is workers’ best leverage over the boss, and ABI Teamsters’ landslide authorization vote gives Padellaro and co. the strongest possible bargaining position coming down the homestretch. “It’s super significant,” he says. “We’re united like we’ve never been before. We have support like we’ve never seen before.”

ABI begs to differ, framing the vote tally as status quo. “Anheuser-Busch is aware of the Teamsters’ strike authorization vote, which is common during labor negotiations,” a company rep says via email. This is true, in a sense: A strike authorization is a procedural step, and a tool that unions have used to demonstrate militancy and improve their prospects at the bargaining table. But such an overwhelming vote in favor of striking by ABI’s U.S. Teamsters does not appear common. I could find no evidence of one this century, and the company’s spokesperson declined to provide examples.

To the Teamsters’ veteran negotiator, the company’s intransigence betrays a belief among its negotiators that it has an upper hand like in years past. “I think they’re hoping, or betting that it’s going to be business as usual, which is crazy to me,” Padellaro says. “Because that’s going to be a fool’s bet on their behalf.”

Foolish or not, with a tight job market, public opinion squarely on labor’s side, and Bud Light just now emerging from a damaging nine-month gauntlet, the stakes couldn’t be higher. ABI may have tricks up its sleeve heading into 2024, but the Teamsters already do have 5,000 workers ready to walk off the brewhouse floor and into the headlines. Who’s bluffing whom here?

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

The American craft brewing segment had a tough year by most measures, but the one that jumps out to me is the ratio between breweries opening and closing. Preliminary data from the Brewers Association still indicate that more firms started up than shuttered in 2023, but only by a hair (420 compared to 385, respectively.) Whether things stabilize there or those figures eventually flip-flop remains to be seen. In the meantime, consider that a whopping 1,900 craft breweries came on line in 2019, more than four times the openings just four years later. Times aren’t a-changin’ — they’ve already changed.

📈 Ups…

Hard cider sales are stronger than usual following the first-ever National Cider Month… Reminder not to freak out about Dry January, because 80 percent of non-alc buyers actually spend more than alc-only buyers on total alcohol purchases… Congrats to this year’s 30 best breweries in the country according to beer bars…

📉 …and downs

Homebrewing and craft brewing are decoupling, to the former’s detriment (and maybe the latter’s, too)… Total Wine and the Federal Trade Commission have settled on how much of the retailer’s dealings with Southern Glazer’s must be disclosed, robbing us of pretrial discovery… Constellation Brand’s fired beer division finance exec is facing lurid allegations of stalking and harassment

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