4/18/08

Teamsters labor-state strike, month 2

Truck drivers and warehouse workers at Johnson Brothers Liquor Company's distribution facility in St. Paul have been on strike since St. Patrick's Day, and the 700 Teamsters are asking supporters who drink Phillips liquors, Gallo wines or Karkov Vodka to boycott those labels until the dispute is settled.

The previous contract between Teamsters Local 792 and Johnson Brothers expired Feb. 28, and Larry Yoswa, principal officer of the local, said negotiations quickly broke down in March, when management attempted to drive a wedge into the bargaining unit by unilaterally giving raises to supplemental employees.

"We were at the table, but we weren't even talking economics yet," Yoswa said. "Management was trying to split the group."

In response, Local 792 filed a complaint of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, which is investigating. Negotiations resumed, but it soon became apparent, Yoswa said, that Johnson Brothers had no interest in a new contract.

"They weren't putting offers on the table," he said. "They weren't bargaining in good faith."

Union members walked off the job at 4 a.m. on March 17, and they declared a statewide boycott of the brands distributed exclusively by Johnson Brothers: Phillips, Gallo and Karkov.

Johnson Brothers, a national distribution firm headquartered in St. Paul, hired replacement workers immediately after the strike began and has since placed advertisements seeking permanent replacements – a move that prompted a second NLRB complaint from Local 792.

"We feel this is an unfair-labor-practices strike, and it's illegal for the company to hire permanent replacements," Yoswa said.

Still, Johnson Brothers' message was not lost on striking members.

"What we're hearing from the inside is the owner is saying the union isn't coming back," Yoswa said. "He's going to try to break them. That's why he's put out an ad for permanent replacements."

Meanwhile, Local 792 believes the temporary replacement drivers were "fast-tracked" into their positions. If management bypassed the drug screenings, background checks and physical exams that usually go into hiring process, Johnson Brothers is putting Minnesotans' safety and security at risk.

"Our members take their jobs seriously and conform to safety requirements that keep the workplace and the public safe," Yoswa said. "Now Johnson Brothers is taking a risk by disregarding proven safety standards and sending untested drivers out on public streets."

Striking members of Local 792 have seen the safety hazard posed by replacement drivers firsthand the past few weeks, as the Teamsters have begun employing "roving pickets." In the maneuver, designed to spread the pain of the strike from Johnson Brothers to its clients, strikers follow replacement drivers' trucks and erect picket lines wherever they attempt to unload.

"The beer (delivery) guys, the pop guys – those are all 792 members," Yoswa said. "They'll go right by. They won't cross those picket lines."

Yoswa estimated that Johnson Brothers is making about 35 percent of its regular deliveries – and losing accounts as a result.

Last weekend, Local 792 increased the pressure on Johnson Brothers' clients, distributing fliers announcing the boycott of Phillips, Gallo and Karkov at liquor stores throughout the Twin Cities.

"We're going to be out there in full force on the weekends, when people do their shopping, to let people know about the boycott," Yoswa said.

Although Johnson Brothers could cave under the Teamsters' pressure any day, Local 792 has dug in for a protracted struggle. The last meeting between the two sides, according to Yoswa, was March 31.

"Our members have been out a while, and they want to get back to work," Yoswa said. "But the end game for us is a contract.

"I think we're beating them. Any support people can give by stopping by the line or getting word out about the boycott would be greatly appreciated."

(workdayminnesota.org)

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