By Don McIntosh, Associate editor
Teamsters Local 162 is facing what more and more looks like a union-busting effort by General Distributors Inc.—a regional distributor of beer, wine, cider, and water based in Oregon City.
When truck drivers, warehouse workers, and sales employees learned that the profitable company would seek $1.5 million a year in concessions from them in their next union contract, they voted 59 to 5 to strike, and about 80 members of Teamsters Local 162 walked off the job Nov. 17. In response, the company threatened to permanently replace them.
“If we do not hear from you or if you do not report to work at your regularly scheduled time, unfortunately you will be subject to being permanently replaced as an employee of General Distributors, Inc. without further notice,” wrote general manager Steve “Tiny” Irwin in a Nov. 19 letter to strikers.
The threats were real, and they took a toll: About 20 union members crossed the picket line and returned to work, alongside about 30 replacement workers hired by the company.
For 16 days, the remaining strikers held out, inspired by support from customers, community members, and other unions. Alameda Brewing owner Matt Schumacher delivered 14 dozen chicken wings to the picketline. Others heard about the strike on the news and brought coffee and donuts. And other Teamster locals showed support: Local 305 delivered a pickup full of food, Local 206 gave $25 gift cards to each picketer, and Local 324 members drove from Salem to walk the line. One Local 162 trustee, Coca-Cola driver Joe Simon, even took a week of vacation to join the picket line. By week two, strikers were also receiving $400 a week from Local and international union strike funds.
But the company was giving every indication that it intended to permanently replace the strikers. When the two sides met Dec. 2 to negotiate with the assistance of a federal mediator, the union offered to roll the existing contract forward three years — no wage increases, just keep current terms — and go back to work. Company representatives took less than five minutes to reject that offer, then packed up and left, after making it clear that any settlement would have to include retention of the strikebreakers.
Later that day, strikers voted to end their walkout with an unconditional offer to return to work. The company refused to take most of them back, claiming their positions had been filled. Of the 59 union members still honoring the strike on Dec. 2, just 21 have been rehired. Half the remainder are receiving unemployment benefits, and the other half have found other work. As many as 19 General Distributors strikers have been hired by other Teamster employers, such as Sysco, and are earning more than they did at General Distributors.
Workers at General Distributors earn $16 to $19.50 per hour under the union contract that expired Nov. 1 — low by union standards, but not low enough for company management. The crux of the dispute is General Distributors’ demand for the same terms its competitor Maletis is getting in a separate contract with Local 162. Maletis distributes Anheuser-Busch beers locally, and Local 162 President Mark Davison says its wages and benefits have always lagged behind General Distributors.
Terms of the old contract are still in force until a new contract is reached, or until bargaining reaches impasse, or until workers vote out the union.
On Dec. 14, the company asked the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election to see if the union still has majority support among employees. Union supporters have defeated four previous attempts to vote out the union at General Distributors—most recently in 2012, when workers voted 47 to 4 to keep the union. But this time, the company presumably intends to include the workers it hired as striker replacements—and exclude some of the union’s strongest supporters, who’ve been suspended from returning. Local 162 is seeking to block the union election on the grounds that the company violated labor law.
Teamsters Local 162 has represented employees at General Distributors for over 50 years. And General Distributors, owned by the Fick family, had a reputation for fair dealing until the current dispute. Strikers blame the change on Irwin, who was hired this year as general manager, and on the attorneys the company brought in this year. General Distributors is represented by Ronald Williams of the Lake Oswego law firm Williams & Zografos, and Todd Lyon of the nationally prominent anti-union law firm Fisher & Phillips.
No further contract bargaining sessions are currently scheduled.
The union launched a web site — GeneralDistributorsGreed.com — to tell its side of the story.
UNIONBUSTING’S BITTER TASTE
A 1947 anti-union law makes it illegal for the Teamsters to boycott beverages distributed by General Distributors. But nothing prevents Labor Press readers from taking a break from the its products until strikers are back on the job.
General Distributors distributes the MillerCoors family of beers East of the Willamette River as far as Hood River. Brands include Miller and Coors as well as Corona and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. The company also handles many dozens of other beverages, including Arizona Teas, Kombucha Wonder Drink, and V8. The full list is on the company web site at generaldistributors.com.