Minnesota's biggest beer distributor and its truck drivers are locked in a labor dispute.
Whether they know it or not, breweries -- local and national -- and Twin Cities beer drinkers are increasingly getting caught in the middle.
The striking drivers of Teamsters Local 792 union are asking supporters for a temporary boycott of more than a dozen popular beers. Among them: Schell's, Guinness, Summit, Leinenkugel's, Miller Lite, and Deschutes.
Those brews are usually delivered by the roughly 100 unionized drivers who keep things flowing at bars and liquor stores. These past few weeks, they've been delivered by strike-breaking drivers -- "scabs," in pro-labor parlance -- who've been hired by the company on the other side of the bargaining table.
J.J. Taylor Distributing, which has offices in Minnesota and is headquartered in Florida, offered drivers a contract in late March that would, according to the company "substantially increase the average pay for drivers plus health and retirement benefits." (J.J. Taylor estimates its drivers collect an average annual salary of around $70,000, near the "top of the industry scale," though the union says figures vary widely among drivers.) In exchange, management is asking drivers to take on new routes, which the company describes as being more "balanced" than previous driving lines.
That balance is achieved by making two-man routes into one-man gigs, which the Teamsters say would make their jobs not just overly demanding, but dangerous, forcing individual drivers to lift and move dozens of 175-pound kegs in a single workday, according to Ed Reynoso, political director for Teamsters unions in Minnesota.
Reynoso observes that many deliveries demand not just dropping the keg off, but delivering it down the stairs, into a bar or restaurant's basement.
"And some of those old staircases may not be up to code," he says. "It's unsafe."
J.J. Taylor doesn't dispute the claim that beer kegs are heavy. In exchange for removing a pair of hands, the company says it will teach delivery drivers about ergonomics, and how to properly load and transport kegs.
"We say that's B.S.," says Reynoso. "You want people to do that all day long, on 50 or 60 kegs?"
The strike started April 13, and the two sides have not been in contact in close to two weeks, Reynoso says. In the meantime, Taylor has hired replacement drivers through Huffmaster; Reynoso says because those drivers are brought in from out of state, the company's been paying not just salaries, but room and board and per diems, too.
The union, for its part, is trying to find pressure points to give the strike more force. On the high end, they've appealed directly to David Trone, co-owner of Total Wine, the big-box liquor store chain with five locations around the Twin Cities. Trone is running for Congress as a progressive Democrat in Maryland, and Reynoso says refusing to take deliveries from J.J. Taylor during the strike would "prove he is, in fact, a pro-labor candidate."
Locally, some bars and liquor stores have opted not to carry certain beers during the strike. Porky's Bar in St. Paul has "not accepted one lick of J.J. Taylor" since the strike, Reynoso says.
Grumpy's Bar, in Northeast, has removed affected beers from its rotation in solidarity, and owner Tom Hazelmyer says the same move is "under serious consideration" at the other two Grumpy's locations.
As of Monday night, Reynoso says HopCat bar in downtown Minneapolis has agreed to do the same.
At some liquor stores, such as Valu Liquors on the University of Minnesota campus, shoppers approaching the fridge are encouraged to "please boycott the entire J.J. Taylor portfolio" by a poster, which then lists 14 beers and two wine cooler products to avoid in solidarity.
Reynoso says the union's not trying to hurt any of the breweries involved -- some, he points out, are themselves union shops -- but thinks the public campaign is "really cutting into the profits" of J.J. Taylor.
"We're willing to sit down and talk about the delivery system," Reynoso says, "and see where can find common ground. But our safety isn't for sale or trade."
He adds: "We're willing to stay out a day longer than they are."
Read the full list of products the Teamsters is asking customers to boycott below:
Miller and Miller Lite
Cold Spring Brewery
New Belgium/Fat Tire
Belgian Owl Distilleries
Grain Belt Premium