The heat of hot labor summer shows no sign of breaking as the calendar flips to fall. Now one of the country’s biggest unions has set its sights on the country’s biggest macrobrewer. The Teamsters are taking aim at Anheuser-Busch InBev, folks, and they say it’s been a long time coming.
“Teamsters having been picking up the tab for this company for too long,” Jeff Padellaro, director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Brewery, Bakery, and Soft Drink Conference, said in a statement released last week, one day after kicking off bargaining with the firm for a new contract that will cover the ~5,000 workers it represents at the firm for the next five years. (The current contract, ratified in 2019, expires at the end of February 2024.) “To Anheuser-Busch we say, ‘The next round is on you.'”
The Teamsters’ timing couldn’t be better. Right now is probably the best moment in 40 years to be renegotiating a union contract, with more Americans approving of unions than they have at almost any other point in your humble Hop Take columnist’s lifetime. Labor is still a shadow of its former self, but it is indisputably on the move.
11,500 workers with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) just this week came in off the picket line after 148 days, winning what are reported to be major gains against Hollywood studios and streaming giants. Actors with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), 65,000 of them, are still out on strike. The United Auto Workers (UAW) are weeks into a historic “stand-up” strike against the Big Three automakers, with some 18,300 of a potential 145,000 members currently striking. 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers repped by a coalition of unions across the country are ready to strike the health care giant within days, and SAG-AFTRA just authorized another strike, this time involving voice actors who work for the world’s 10 largest video game companies.
For the Teamsters specifically, these pre-scheduled negotiations with ABI come at an auspicious moment. The union, a “sleeping giant” that has awakened to its legacy of labor militancy under the new leadership of militant general president Sean O’Brien, dominated headlines through the spring and summer as it went toe-to-toe with United Parcel Service to hash out a contract for 300,000 workers under the credible threat of a massive strike. Most observers agreed that the Teamsters got the better of UPS in those negotiations. The momentum, Padellaro tells Hop Take in a recent phone interview, is crucial to the negotiations with ABI: “We’re resetting the clock.”
This is also an auspicious moment to be renegotiating a union contract with ABI specifically. The firm is making gobs of money, riding a pandemic surge in business to over $6 billion in underlying profit in 2022 alone. It’s also embattled for reasons you’d know from reading this very column — the transphobic right-wing temper tantrum over Bud Light’s engagement with a trans influencer, and ABI executives’ dismal, mealy-mouthed, and ineffective mismanagement of the same. Big Beer’s biggest heavyweight has been on its back foot since April, scrambling to divest its flailing flagship brand of even the slightest scintilla of “wokeness” in hopes of clawing back a major sales slide. Amid all that, ABI still beat earnings forecasts in this year’s second fiscal quarter, though its U.S. revenues did decline 10.5 percent.
“This is a very profitable company,” Padellaro says. “Teamster members 5,000 strong across the country make this company a lot of money, and our position is we shouldn’t have to suffer because of management decisions.” (ABI did not reply to my request for comment for this column.)
At issue this bargaining cycle are a menu of pain points that negotiators, led by Padellaro, who has been involved in these negotiations with ABI in one form or another since 1998, want to see addressed and codified into the next contract. The union’s release cites better wages and improved job security for workers across the brewer’s 12 macrobrewing facilities nationwide, as well as the “eliminat[ion of] a two-tier health care system.” Tiered systems that grant different tranches of workers different pay or treatment are typically considered within the labor movement to be tools companies use to divide and conquer a union. (You may have seen photos lately of UAW president Shawn Fain in a T-shirt that reads “End Tiers.” Now you get the reference.)
It’s an example of the type of “concessionary bargaining” that unions, including the Teamsters, have agreed to in years past as they’ve negotiated from a defensive posture, weakened by decades of attrition spurred on by corporate assaults, right-wing propaganda, and globalization (plus, to be fair, some self-inflicted wounds along the way.) Though he declines to “negotiate the contract in the press” in detail in these early weeks across the table from ABI’s bargaining team, Padellaro emphasizes that the Teamsters aim to put an end to concessions that he feels they’ve made in negotiations dating back to InBev’s takeover of Anheuser-Busch in 2008.
“From our perspective, there’s been more takeaways than gains in order to get [that] deal done,” he says. The sacrifices Teamsters made as essential workers for ABI during the pandemic, and inflation that is disproportionately affecting the American working class, are more recent challenges that the union hopes to address in this coming contract. “Workers have concerns over what the future looks like,” says Padellaro. Emulating the successful strategy with UPS, rank-and-file ABI Teamsters will join union negotiators in bargaining sessions this cycle, helping Padellaro weigh the validity of management’s claims and providing real-time perspective on what the membership considers important. “In my opinion, the employers take a step back when they know you’ve got rank-and-file resources right there with you at the table,” he says.
“These are people that do it day in and day out, that can speak to what it was like to go to work every day during the pandemic,” he says. “It’s very important” having them at the table for those gut checks. The union credits the more democratic, grassroots approach to bargaining, a new strategy introduced under the reformers O’Brien and general secretary-treasurer Fred Zuckerman, for its success with UPS. Now, ABI will face Teamster rank and file, too.
Unlike at UPS, where the Teamsters began making noise about their strike readiness nearly a year in advance of the current contract’s expiration, Padellaro declines to discuss potential escalation tactics. “I don’t think I really want to let Anheuser-Busch know what our playbook is, but the Teamsters are united in solidarity like never before,” he says.
Beyond the dozen mega-plants ABI operates in the U.S., there are also a dozen or so smaller craft breweries in its portfolio. Two of those — Elysian Brewing Co. in Seattle, and Widmer Bros. Brewing in Portland, Ore. — also recently went union with their Teamster locals, and are in varying stages of bargaining. (NB: Widmer Bros. was one of the eight brands that ABI sold off to Tilray earlier this summer, so once that deal closes, workers will find themselves bargaining with the cannabis giant rather than the brewing giant.) I’ve argued here that these green shoots could provide a prominent template for unions, Teamster or otherwise, to organize more of the 190,000 workers directly employed by the craft brewing industry.
When I ask whether the Teamsters’ early swagger in negotiations with ABI presages more hands-on organizing in smaller shops where workers are often paid worse wages under worse conditions than their macrobrewing counterparts, Padellaro is circumspect. “We’re actively organizing and spreading the word that if you’re not organized, if you’re not a union member, if you’re not part of the Teamsters, you don’t get a seat at the table,” he says. “But that doesn’t take away from the laser focus we have on national bargaining with Anheuser-Busch.”
This is one to keep an eye on, folks.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
Because everything else is going so well these days, Asahi chief executive Atsushi Katsuki wanted to make sure you knew that the climate crisis has in no way subsided and is in fact poised to threaten global beer production in very material ways in the coming decades. The Japanese macrobrewer’s analysis shows that even holding warming temperatures below a 2 degree Celsius increase would still put 10 percent of French barley at risk and reduce the quality of hops from the Czech Republic by 13 percent by 2050. Worse news: The world is currently trending toward larger temperature increases, jeopardizing that much more of the vital agricultural required to produce beer. “There is a risk that we may not be able to produce enough beer,” Katsuki told the Financial Times. Neat!
Congrats to all the medalists at the 2023 Great American Beer Festival… Allagash Brewing Co. plans to add its first rotating seasons, sad #BeerTwitter isn’t around to see this… To make recycled water from Phoenix’s new purification plant seem less gross, the Arizona Republic and Desert Monks Brewing Co. brewed a pale ale with it…
📉 …and downs
More than six months into Bud Light’s crisis, “generational wealth is rapidly disappearing” for some ABI-aligned distributors… 20 workers out of jobs and a handful of brands looking for new distribution as Cape May Brewing, the biggest outfit in New Jersey, shutters its wholesale operation… Former ABI staffers describe “incompetence in the leadership on a national level” vis-à-vis the Bud Light backlash…