D.J. Edwards comes home smelling like beer every morning. He works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a filler operator at Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Jacksonville, Florida, running a huge machine that fills 165 12-ounce cans every time it rotates. He takes a lot of pride in the job and says he’s willing to strike to make sure the company takes care of its workers.
“We’re really fighting for job security,” Edwards said. “We need to know they’re committed to keeping breweries open and keeping us employed.”
The union contract covering 5,000 Anheuser-Busch brewery employees expires Feb. 29. The Teamsters union says it made some progress on negotiating a new five-year agreement until talks stopped abruptly in mid-November. The two sides haven’t met since then and remain apart on key issues like pay increases, pension contributions and guarantees on jobs, according to the union.
In a sign of the high expectations for a strong contract, workers recently voted 99% in favor of authorizing the Teamsters to call a strike if they don’t reach a deal by the end of next month.
That means Anheuser-Busch could see the most high-profile work stoppage of the new year, hitting a dozen breweries in 11 states and shutting the taps for Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra and Stella Artois, among other big-name macrobrews owned by Belgian parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev.
“The momentum is swinging in our direction. It’s time to take care of the worker.”
– D.J. Edwards, a filler operator at Anheuser-Busch in Florida
Having watched other workers walk off the job amid a surge of U.S. labor activism, employees like Edwards believe now is the time to demand more from the storied brew-maker.
“We feel like at this rate the momentum is swinging in our direction,” said Edwards, a 37-year-old new father who has been at Anheuser-Busch since 2019. “It’s time to take care of the worker.”
It’s certainly a favorable moment to be hitting the picket lines.
Bolstered by a tight labor market and inspired by other contract fights, union workers have been walking off the job in numbers not seen since the wave of red-state teacher strikes that began in 2018. Writers, actors, autoworkers, nurses and baristas were all among the more than 400,000 workers who made 2023 a banner year for striking, and helped put corporate executives and board members on their heels.
But not all major contract battles have led to work stoppages lately. Some 300,000 Teamsters members at UPS threatened to walk out last summer, but the union and its new hard-charging president, Sean O’Brien, managed to secure what they called a historic deal just shy of the strike deadline.
As the booze news and culture site VinePair reported in its continuing coverage of the fight, the Teamsters standoff comes at a critical time for Anheuser-Busch. Right-wing commentators waged a damaging boycott of Bud Light last year after Anheuser-Busch worked with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a one-off social media promotion, leading America’s top-selling brew to lose market ground in historic fashion. While still profitable with revenue climbing globally, the embattled beer giant would surely like to avoid the news coverage of a nationwide strike at a time when union favorability hovers near a six-decade high.
“This company is going to put themselves on strike come March 1 if we don’t have an agreement that we can all be proud of.”
– Jeff Padellaro, the director of the Teamsters’ brewery conference
Jeff Padellaro, the director of the Teamsters’ brewery conference, said what happens at Anheuser-Busch all depends on how much the company moves on the union’s core issues by the end of February. He accused the company of “walking away from the table” after union negotiators said that they wanted to discuss job security measures in November, two months after bargaining began. He said the union never got an opportunity to make its proposals on the issue.
“We’ve made our demands clear. We’ve made our expectations clear,” Padellaro said in an interview. “This company is going to put themselves on strike come March 1 if we don’t have an agreement that we can all be proud of.”
An Anheuser-Busch spokesperson declined to address the hiatus in talks but said that the company has “a long-standing track record of reaching agreements” with unions.
“We continue to be at the bargaining table and willing to negotiate, and we look forward to resuming formal negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable agreement that continues to recognize and reward our employees,” the company said.
Like the United Auto Workers in its strike at the “Big Three” automakers, the Teamsters say they are looking to recoup some of the ground that workers lost at Anheuser-Busch in previous contracts. Padellaro borrowed a phrase that he said the union leader O’Brien likes to use: “The concession stand is now closed.”
Before the bargaining sessions stopped, the two sides managed to reach a tentative agreement on a crucial issue: eliminating a two-tiered health care plan. The system, established in a 2019 contract, foisted higher costs onto new employees hired after its implementation. Such arrangements can sow deep divisions within unions, since workers are treated differently despite doing the same work.
The disparate treatment even exists within families. Edwards, who is one of three brothers working at the Jacksonville brewery, said that he is subject to the more expensive plan. So is his youngest brother. But their middle brother, who has the longest tenure, enjoys lower health care costs through the legacy plan.
“Our health benefits [are] not as good as anybody hired pre-2019,” Edwards said of newer employees like himself. “That was the most important thing to me and guys like me. … Sitting there thinking about a young family, now I have to plan around my health care.”
The union appears to be having a harder time securing guarantees on jobs.
“The ones picking up the tab on everything is us, the workforce.”
– Levi Kovari, a brewer and union shop steward at Anheuser-Busch in Colorado
Although he declined to discuss union proposals in detail, Padellaro said the Teamsters want assurances that workers won’t lose their positions during the life of the contract. He noted that AB InBev announced a $1 billion stock buyback amid negotiations, and argued that the company should assure the same sort of investment in its employees.
“We told them straight out, ‘We need a commitment to protect the head count,’” Padellaro said. “We showed up to have that discussion, and the company sent their negotiating team home.”
Levi Kovari, a brewer and union shop steward at the company’s Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery, said that a lot of workers have lost overtime due to drops in beer volume. While the impact of the Bud Light boycott on corporate employees was well documented, Kovari said that workers got stung on the factory floor as well.
“The ones picking up the tab on everything is us, the workforce,” he said. “We’ve seen drastic cuts in overtime on the packaging side. We’ve seen a reduction in the amount of man-hours on the brewing side. We’re all feeling the effects of all of this. But the company, they’re still spending money, and they’re still extremely profitable.”
Kovari called himself “a product of Anheuser-Busch.” His father worked at the company’s Colorado can plant for years, and his cousin now works in the same plant as Kovari. He said it’s gratifying to make a product that millions of people know and enjoy. He just hopes Anheuser-Busch agrees to a contract that reflects the work employees put into it.
“The company has made these commitments to their shareholders,” Kovari said. “They need to make the same commitment to their employees.”