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Of beer and bravery

in To Each Their Own by

I was in the liquor store with a friend the other day, and found myself reaching for an erstwhile German beer which, it turns out, was distributed by the same multinational company which now owns Labatts. My friend grabbed my arm.

“Hold on!” she said. “Isn’t that distributed by Labatts?”

She was, of course, aware of the boycott of Labatt products initiated by the striking union local in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Appeals for the boycott of Labatt products had gone out internationally; I received several of them on various international social justice lists I was on.

The strike of course has been over now for almost two weeks, yet my friend’s reaction was a good indication of just how powerful and widespread support for the workers was. And even while the memory of the strike may be fading from public consciousness, it’s good that it still lingers in ways like this. Strikes are not like other news events: accidents or parades or political drama. They are living, active symbols of the determination of workers in our community to assert their freedom and political rights, and to exert control over the conditions under which they work and labour. In many ways, they are among the most powerful and important symbols of the democratic and social liberties that define us as a free society.

Healing the wounds

Time heals all wounds, they say, but some wounds take longer than others.

A strike leaves such wounds. Strikes startle, because you always assume the bosses will be rational (though bosses rarely are) and it won’t actually happen. One day you’re talking respectfully to your manager as you do the job you’ve been trained to do; the next, you’re out on the street because the manager doesn’t feel you’re worth an extra dollar an hour (while the company’s profits have increased by the millions per quarter).

And the wounds pile up. A week later, there’s somebody in a suit from corporate office speaking to the news cameras, telling them you’re not worth the salary you’re demanding (a third of what he earns, and his job mostly involves talking trash about you when you dare ask for more money). He comes out from behind his 6-figure salary to say you don’t deserve it because you’re just doing unskilled labour (even though he wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to keep himself from getting killed on any of the machines in your factory, let alone use them constructively. Yet such 6-salary people are suddenly experts in these fields they know nothing about; it’s impressive what delusions a 6-figure salary can afflict you with).

Then a week later your manager drives a truck straight at your picket line, firing a string of expletives at you as he runs over your co-worker’s toes.

A month of this; two months; then ten – it’s winter and you pace up and down the picket line because if you stop you freeze; you decline an opportunity for a coffee break because taking off your soaking wet jacket and socks for ten minutes would just make it harder to put them back on for your next 4-hour shift.

And there’s your manager, smiling at you from his warm office one minute (where he doesn’t do much these days besides conspire about how to make you look bad to the media), careening toward you in a forklift the next (cursing and waving his fist, with a cop car behind him to enforce a court order if you should dare to shout back).

But then what do you know: the strike’s over, and it’s back to work. Civility and respect must reign once more and it’s back to the same-old daily grind, which somehow doesn’t feel quite the same way it did 11 months ago.

Yes, some wounds take time to heal.

The uninformed vs the ‘unskilled’

The courageous Labatt workers who bothered to read news coverage of the strike would have read a lot of nasty comments on media websites (most of them probably posted by 6-figure PR hacks in suits from corporate office.

Take the classic argument: “They’re already overpaid for unskilled work!”

Ah yes, the old argument that “unskilled” work deserves less money – a favourite argument used by the uninformed, who in fact have no idea what skills are involved in a particular job.

Working in a brewery ain’t exactly simple. As Liz Ford observed in a 2007 article in the Guardian: “There’s more to a career in brewing and distilling than liking a good pint of ale. You’ll need a healthy interest in science … It’s a sophisticated, technical industry, but one that offers plenty of job opportunities both in the UK and overseas.”

She quotes a human resource officer in Coors Brewers on what they look for in employees: “A science-based qualification would be ideal, but we wouldn’t exclude someone who wanted to work on the technical side if they have done something else. They’ll just have more ground to make up.”

The skilled work involved in a brewery comes with costs of its own. A search through the online database of the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety website reveals the many dangers that the skilled brewery workers are exposed to. It makes for sobering reading. It reports workers who died from being electrified, crushed by machinery, or exposed to carbon monoxide and other poisonous gasses. Many others suffer crushed or amputated fingers and limbs: serious burns are quite common. Here’s one accident report:

At approximately 4:00 p.m. on April 14, 2004, Employee #1, a brew master, was cleaning and sanitizing beer kegs with boiling hot water from a hose connected to a hot water tank. A beer keg had not been properly purged to relieve internal pressure, and when the brew master opened the gate valve, the beer keg, pressurized with 16 to 18 psi of carbon dioxide gas, caused boiling hot water in the tank to overflow from the top of the tank. Approximately five gallons of hot boiling water spilled onto Employee #1, causing second degree burns to his legs, back and arms. A coworker came to his aid and drove him to a nearby hospital for emergency medical care.

And another…

On June 28, 2006, anhydrous ammonia was released from a pressure relief valve on the F3 Kathabar dehumidifier and refrigeration unit. The anhydrous ammonia was piped from the pressure relief valve to the roof where it was released. The anhydrous ammonia collected outside of the building housing the F3 Kathabar unit, in the B & C Fermentation Tank Corridor. Employee #1 was exposed to the anhydrous ammonia when he entered the B & C Fermentation Tank Corridor to check a carbon dioxide sensor. Upon entering the corridor, Employee #1 noticed a strong smell of ammonia and experienced burning and watery eyes and difficult breathing.

Yes, clearly a cakewalk for the unskilled. Good thing they’re the ones doing it, since their critics would probably get themselves killed within an hour if let loose in the brewery…

A proud history

When the student-run university bar announced a boycott on Labatt products in support of the strikers, there were those who giggled at the idea of a beer boycott. But in fact beer boycotts – and beer strikes – have a long and powerful legacy. In 1834, the Journeyman Coopers – a form of early union representing employees at the Combe and Delafield brewery in London, UK – went on strike demanding pay increases. At the time it was common practice for employers to give construction workers free beer and gin when they arrived for work in the morning (oh, you Victorians!). The construction trades and bricklayers decided to support the brewery workers by boycotting beer from the striking brewery. Their bosses, in turn, were horrified and fearful at this show of solidarity, and made the demand – surely odd from today’s viewpoint – that their employees drink the beer they offered them in the morning or lose their jobs. This only caused the protest to spread. At a riotous organizing meeting, held at a local coffee house, one of the organizers gave the following rousing speech:

“What … are the journeymen of England to be brought down to the state of degradation and slavery, that they are not even to be masters of their own throats? Must they be told that they must drink whatever their employers think proper to give them?”

As it turned out, government intervened on the side of the employer to bring the strike to an end, but this had provided workers a good example of how effective a beer boycott could be.

In 1872 America had its first brewery strike, in New York City, and in 1888 a series of beer strikes broke out across the country, including a notable one in San Francisco. When the breweries there hired scabs to produce the beer, workers throughout the city boycotted the “scab brew”, as well as any pubs and taverns that sold it. Indeed, tavern-owners found themselves having to go to great lengths to ship in non-scab, unionized beer from afar in order to keep their customers: but many of them did so proudly and in support. The scab-run breweries lowered their prices – eventually almost giving away the beer in desperation. After a 9-month strike, the union won a great victory (including not only their wage and working-hour demands, but free beer too).

Free beer? You think that’s frivolous or excessive? In a world where the bosses and managers zip around in first-class airfare, charging their wardrobes to corporate credit cards and demanding free car allowances and summer homes (even university administrators get such things, sure!) a pint or two on the house – of the beer you produce with your own sweat and labour – is really a very minor thing to demand.

Local legends, too

Rally outside the Labatt Brewery in St. John's. May 28, 2013. Photo by Jenne Nolan.
“Newfoundland and Labrador is the most unionized province in the country – it’s in our blood, it seems.”  Rally outside the Labatt Brewery in St. John’s. May 28, 2013. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

Newfoundland and Labrador is the most unionized province in the country – it’s in our blood, it seems. In his memoirs, legendary union organizer Cyril W. Strong recalled his early pre-Confederation labour organizing days, when he walked up and down George Street unionizing the underpaid and poorly treated bar staff at the downtown clubs (hint to the wise – servers of the world unite, too!).

And then, of course, there was the dramatic ‘Beer Strike of ‘85’, in Newfoundland and Labrador – an event whose 30th anniversary surely deserves to be commemorated next year. It even inspired a famous poem by Ben Ploughman with that title. In April of that year workers at Labatt went on strike: in a touching display of corporate solidarity, Molson and Carling O’Keefe locked their workers out as well. Thus all brewery workers were on strike or locked out until November of that year.

The impact of the strike made itself felt. One of the unions even occupied the Carling O’Keefe plant. As Chris Conway reports in his excellent history of the strike on his excellent webpage about Newfoundland Beer History:

By May many local pubs and taverns were running low on beer supplies. Steve Sparkes, the president of Hospitality Newfoundland, told the Globe and Mail on May 11 that within “maybe 12 or 14 days… every bar will be out of beer,” and that “[p]eople just haven’t switched to liquor as we had hoped.” The solution to the beer shortage was one which many Newfoundlanders came to abhor: importing larger quantities of American beer.

The problem, as Conway notes, was that everyone hated American beer. Even today when I ask people whether they were affected by the strike (I was too young to remember it) they immediately recoil and cry in disgust: “The year of the American beer!” Even those who were children at the time recall their parents bemoaning the American beer that the NLC imported as a result of the strike. Many turned to homebrew, as Ploughman’s poem describes:

And such the likes were never seen
Of homebrew that was brewed,
From herring barrels and plastic pails
So thick as Irish stew.

In the first four months of the strike beer sales dropped by 20% compared to the previous year, and by the end of it the companies had incurred losses of 15% of sales (worth $15 million). And once the strike was over, the NLC purportedly had to offer incredible discounts on what was left of the American beer in order to get anybody to buy it.

Yes – beer boycotts work.

A toast to the brave

So the Labatt workers were holding faith with a long and noble heritage when they held out for 11 months in a strike whose significance lay in the broader message it sent: that in this era of prosperity, the hard-working people of this province, on whose backs the corporate success stories have been built, will demand and defend the dignity and fair share deserved by all of us.

Striking Labatt employees Frank O'Neill and Keith Abbott stand outside the George Street gates in protest of the festival's deal with Labatt for exclusive beer sales rights at the 2013 festival. Photo by Justin Brake.
Striking Labatt employees Frank O’Neill and Keith Abbott stand outside the gates at the popular George Street Festival in protest of a deal that gave Labatt exclusive beer sales rights at the 2013 festival. Photo by Justin Brake.

No, not every worker in the province is unionized; and not everybody receives the wages and benefits that Labatt workers do. But achievements never come without struggle and sacrifice. For 11 months the Labatt workers showed they were not afraid to struggle for what they deserve: and it’s a lesson for the rest of us to draw strength from. A strike is never easy, but neither is losing your health benefits, or trying to feed your family on the same wages when the cost of living is rising every year. As Danny Williams – quintessential strike-breaker that he was – pointed out, we often have an inferiority complex in this province, and fail to demand what we’re actually worth. But what we don’t have is a solidarity problem.

We know what it means to support each other, and when we take that knowledge and power to the employer or the picket line, and demand that we receive our fair share of the prosperity they are indulging in, then we’re on the road to protecting our dignity and achieving a truly better and more equal society for everyone.

So, to the Labatt strikers who showed the true qualities of Newfoundland and Labrador’s workers – strength, solidarity, and perseverance – for 11 long months, here’s a toast to you.

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