6/23/08

Teamsters may scuttle Bud sale

Related A-B/Teamsters stories: here

Union officials fear huge dues hit from InBev deal

Union leaders representing InBev workers in Brazil, Canada and Europe have a simple message for Anheuser-Busch employees if InBev takes control of the St. Louis-based brewery: Watch out.

"They should worry, because the production is going to be concentrated and the work force reduced," says Siderlei Oliveira, president of Brazil's 1.2 million-member food workers union, citing a reduction in Brazil's brewery workers to 13,000 from 23,000 since the 1990s. "This is the strategy that they have."

In Canada, labor-management relations are "starting to thaw after a significant period of turmoil" marked by years of strikes, lockouts, changes in work rules, layoffs and plant closings, says Cam Nelson, president of the local service employees union representing workers at an InBev Labatt plant in Quebec province. The thaw reflects, in part, recognition by the union that the company's tough-minded cost-cutting and global clout give it the upper hand in calling the shots, Nelson says.

"They have accomplished most of their goals," Nelson says, "and I expect they will be aggressive in cost-cutting (in St. Louis). I would be pretty sure they would be following the same path as they have in the rest of the world."

InBev executives say the worries are unfounded. They strongly deny the company has any plans for consolidation in St. Louis or elsewhere in Anheuser-Busch. InBev "does not expect any significant job losses" from the proposed acquisition, said Nina Devlin, a spokeswoman.

In Washington last week, InBev CEO Carlos Brito said, "The headquarters for the North American region will remain in St. Louis, with an expanded role even.

"We've already said we're not closing any of the 12 breweries. Why? That's a pragmatic move because we don't have any breweries here. So beer needs to be produced locally. So we're not closing any of those breweries."

Another InBev spokeswoman, Marianne Amssoms, said Anheuser-Busch as currently constituted — including its recipes and brewmasters — is a perfect fit to take advantage of the important American market. "We will not change the heritage," she said.

'ISOLATED INCIDENTS'

Union leaders who have dealt with InBev are dubious. They describe a company that moves into a country, consolidates production while instituting strict cost-cutting measures for hourly workers as well as salaried employees — and makes sure it accomplishes its goals.

When labor relations grew rocky in Canada, the company didn't hesitate to bring outside security forces into the Newfoundland Labatt plant, Nelson said. Amssoms said that was done not to "bully" workers — as the union contends — but rather to assure workers' safety.

In Brazil, Oliveira said, InBev used security personnel to "intimidate in-plant union stewards." His union represents 60 to 70 percent of InBev's workers in Brazil, and he also oversees all Latin American food workers for the international union.

Some Brazilian workers who didn't perform efficiently were forced to do push-ups or answer to degrading nicknames, he said.

"It was like in the military; whenever you underperformed, you were punished with push-ups," Oliveira says. In a company statement, InBev called those "isolated incidents" that did not reflect company policy. InBev says it "does not encourage, condone or tolerate any practices or behaviors which cause the humiliation of its employees. While some isolated instances of harassment took place in the past, they were denounced by the company and the company has taken all the necessary actions to avoid potential repetition of such incidents in the future."

In Belgium, consolidation has led to thousands of brewery workers losing their jobs over 20 years — including the closing of a centuries-old brewery.

"Only two big, modern breweries remain," said Alfons De Mey, president of the 110,000-member Belgian food and hotel workers union. Wages have not suffered for workers who still have jobs, he said.

De Mey proposed that unions in Europe, Canada and Brazil meet to plan global strategy with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 8,100 of A-B's 30,000 full-time U.S. workers. In St. Louis, the company has 6,000 employees, most of them at corporate headquarters. Of the 1,200 brewery workers, the Teamsters represent 884. Labor relations generally have been excellent over the years.

While declining to respond specifically to the union leaders' comments, Brito said the company wouldn't be as successful as it is if it had bad labor relations. And he notes that InBev has added 12,000 jobs over the past three years, after most of the cuts cited by union leaders.

"We talk to unions always in the sense of what will the future look like, because we're in the same boat," Brito says. "There are negotiations that take place … in our view, we always take the high ground."

POLLING WORKERS

The Teamsters are maintaining a public silence about the InBev bid. But behind the scenes, the 1.4 million-member union is surveying Anheuser-Busch employees' feelings about the possible deal.

On its website, the union says it wants "to safeguard the unique legacy of Anheuser-Busch, a proud union company and American icon, built by generations of Teamster workers." It warns workers that "InBev's buyout record in Europe and Canada shows that workers and communities that depend on Anheuser-Busch would suffer from a possible erosion of working conditions and even layoffs."

The Teamsters union also says that "to recoup the huge purchase price ... InBev probably would have to cut Anheuser-Busch's operations to the bone," with retiree health care one likely target.

Ron Oswald, general secretary of the 10 million-member Geneva-based international federation of food and beverage workers union, said that overall InBev "has taken over companies that had constructive relations with unions, and after that things have gone downhill and become hostile."

In Canada, Nelson said, guaranteed pensions are being replaced by less-certain benefits, which he calls "something the Teamsters should worry about." InBev also closed Labatt's Toronto plant, where 265 workers had been employed, in 2005, and engaged in a five-month lockout at another plant in Canada.

At the same time, Nelson says, after "a difficult road ... and a number of fights," the union has adapted enough to represent brewery workers as best it can. His local, which represents 700 Labatt workers in Quebec, recently reached a seven-year collective-bargaining agreement with InBev.

(stltoday.com)

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