Delivery drivers for Minnesota’s largest beer distributor aren’t behind the wheel this week—instead they are behind a picket line.
Ninety-three members of Teamsters Local 792, who work as delivery drivers and warehouse workers for J.J. Taylor Distributing Company of Minnesota, went on strike effective at 5am on Monday, April 9.
Located in Northeast Minneapolis, J.J. Taylor began operating in 1985 and has since become the largest beer distributor in the state of Minnesota.
The strike comes after the Teamsters Local 792 members and J.J. Taylor failed to ratify a new contract when the previous contract expired at the end of February. The two parties have been in negotiations through the first week of April, when J.J. Taylor’s delivery drivers and warehouse workers rejected the company’s final offer. The union cites safety concerns over proposed changes to delivery routes that will require all drivers to deliver a mix of kegs and packaged beer as the reason for the strike.
While money is often a primary factor in other strikes, “That’s not the case this time,” claims Edward Reynoso, political and communications director for Teamsters Joint Council 32, the umbrella organization for all Teamsters in Minnesota. Despite J.J. Taylor’s final contract offer including a 10 percent raise for warehouse workers, they decided to vote the contract down in solidarity with the delivery drivers, says Reynoso. “Look, these guys [delivery drivers and warehouse workers], they do pretty good and they appreciate that they’re paid well, but they work hard too. But this comes down to safety on the job.”
The new route system, says J.J. Taylor president and general manager Christopher Morton, is an effort to increase the efficiency of delivery routes and would balance drivers’ workloads each day.
Under the old delivery route system, delivery drivers were able to bid, based on seniority, on two-person keg-only routes, one-person packaged beer routes, and one-person combination routes that delivered kegs and packaged beer. This system, says Reynoso, allowed drivers who were unable to deliver kegs on their own the opportunity to bid on packaged beer–only routes or keg routes that offered a second pair of hands.
However, this system also meant that often two trucks would make stops at the same location. “And that’s completely inefficient,” says Morton. “There’s no reason why we’re having two trucks going to one stop. So that’s one of the things we want to change, plus balance delivery load and balance the days as well, so you’re not going out with one day of 2,000 cases and the next day it’s 300.”
Under the proposed system, all routes would have a mix of kegs and packaged products, eliminating the need for two trucks to make the same stop. The new system would also move from static routes, which are made up of the exact same stops each week regardless of quantities of beer being delivered, to a more flexible routing system that would create a more consistent daily delivery load.
“We’re committed to reaching a fair labor agreement with these guys,” says Morton. “But in a somewhat declining beer market in the state of Minnesota, we’ve got to be significantly more efficient and effective with our delivery and routing.”
The problem, from the union’s perspective, is that efficiency is coming at the expense of the drivers’ safety. “You’ve got drivers that have been there for 20-plus years that don’t have the ability to lift a keg by themselves and [J.J. Taylor has] eliminated the helpers,” says Reynoso. “Look, we like to work hard for our money, we have a motto of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But at the end of the day when you’ve got to go home to your family and you can’t enjoy time with your family because your back is hurt or your shoulder is hurt… I mean, who at 50-plus or 45-plus [years old] can lift a 175-pound keg on a regular basis all day long?”
The company says they are not doing away with two-person routes. Instead, they will send helpers on deliveries with heavier loads, says Morton. “It’s a concern among both the union membership and from us that we do not want to overload a single driver at all. That’s completely what we don’t want to do,” he says. “Is there an occasion here and there where we’re running lean on helpers, and a single driver has a little heavier load? That’s gonna happen. I’m not going to say it doesn’t—on occasion. But 99 percent of the time, we’ll make sure the routes that are heavy will have help on them. So essentially, we call them one-man routes and two-man routes. They are essentially all one-man routes, and we adjust the helpers based on the loads.”
Though they couldn’t come to an agreement on the issue of delivery routes, both the union and the company regret that it’s come to a strike.
“Our mission statement has always been to be ‘first choice’ with our employees, our customers, and our suppliers,” Morton says. “That’s still the case. They are still our employees. And I hate to see them out there picketing. But at the end of the day, we’ve made a substantial investment [offer] through the negotiations.”
Though it’s not the outcome they wanted, the union says the issue is important enough to be worth striking over. “Believe me, nobody wanted a strike, including our members,” says Reynoso. “This is the last option that we have, is to strike this employer. Nobody wins. But at the end of the day, these members decided that they were going to stand up for themselves and not be bullied and be forced to work under these conditions.”
While the drivers and warehouse workers remain on the picket line, J.J. Taylor is continuing to make deliveries. “We will continue to deliver beer. Beer is being delivered today. Every order that was placed yesterday by our sales team is being delivered today,” Morton says. “I want to get these guys back to work as soon as possible, but I need their leadership to come to the negotiation table.”
Whether or not the Teamsters come back to the table still remains to be seen, but Reynoso says the union is resolute on their stance. “These guys are willing to stay out one more day than J.J. Taylor’s willing to keep the strike day going,” says Reynoso. “We don’t want to be on that strike line, they’d rather be working and making money for their families—and providing the great service that they do for J.J. Taylor. But again, they are willing to stand up for what they believe is right and they don’t want to go home to their family in severe pain and injured. What quality of life does that give you? You can make all the money in the world, but if you don’t have the health to go with it, it’s just worthless.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, Edward Reynoso was identified as the political and communications director for Teamsters Local 792. He serves in that role for Teamsters Joint Council 32, the umbrella organization for all Teamsters in Minnesota.