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Published: Wednesday, 6/26/2002

Beer drivers take aim at drying up 4th sales

Mike Napolski, left, Bob McGee, and Darrell Wyatt walk the picket line at Metropolitan Distributing Co. on Summit Street. Mike Napolski, left, Bob McGee, and Darrell Wyatt walk the picket line at Metropolitan Distributing Co. on Summit Street.

Beer drivers and dock workers who handle the Toledo area's most popular brands closed the tap on their labor yesterday, creating the possibility of a delivery slowdown heading into the busy July 4th week.

Members of Local 87 of the United Steelworkers of America walked off their jobs yesterday at Treu House of Munch, Inc., in Northwood and Metropolitan Distributing Co. near downtown Toledo.

The two firms, which supply Budweiser, Natural Light, Miller, Busch, Corona, and other brands to bars, grocery stores, and carryouts in greater Toledo, control 80 percent of the local beer market, officials said. Combined, they have 80 union workers who have struck over stalled contract negotiations, with a key issue being wages.

“There won't be any shortages,” vowed Sam Botek, Jr., president of Metropolitan, which distributes Miller products. “It's business as usual.”

Still, customers were worried about supplies for the Independence Day holiday week, which is one of the biggest times of the year for beer consumption with its emphasis on picnics and family gatherings.

“That's the best weekend we normally do,” said Mike Taoil, operator of two carryouts in East Toledo. “We're absolutely concerned.”

“I hope they get together and settle this.”

Pat Nowak, spokeswoman for area Food Town grocery stores, said she had not heard about any delivery delays. But she conceded that the timing of the strike was not good. “There is a larger consumption of food and beverages during holiday seasons,” she said.

Trucks driven by salaried sales personnel and other nonunion workers continued to leave Treu House of Munch at 6700 Wales Road yesterday, although traffic was slower than normal, according to workers picketing outside the distributor of Anheuser-Busch and other brands.

A receptionist there said Richard Esser, president, was the only person who could speak for the company and that he was unavailable.

Metropolitan Distributing was unable to make morning deliveries, but shipments resumed at 2:30 p.m., using sales personnel, the president said. Some carry-out owners picked up orders at the firm's warehouse on Summit Street at Lagrange.

Mr. Botek, who plans to hire replacement workers, said the firm will continue to serve customers but that deliveries may be less frequent.

A union official said the timing of the strike was not coincidental.

“This was going to happen sooner or later,” said Dan Smith, financial secretary of Local 87. “The thinking of the members is that with July 4th coming it might as well be sooner.”

Workers voted to strike Monday. The walkouts followed protracted labor problems at both firms.

At Metropolitan, with 27 unionized workers, union members say they have been working without a contract since May, 2001, and are upset that the company wants to pay lower wages to new and more recent hires.

Bob McGee, a warehouse worker with less than two years on the job, said that the $13.85 an hour he earns is about 50 cents less than the wages of co-workers with more seniority.

The union also is unhappy that the company has failed to pay $50,000 in back wages Metropolitan was ordered to pay to employees by the National Labor Relations Board as a result of an unfair labor practices case.

Metropolitan's president said that driver's average “$55,000 and up” a year and that the company needs to cut costs because “the beer industry isn't as profitable as it used to be.”

The union claims the pay figure is exaggerated and that drivers earn $30,000 to $50,000.

Driver Rob Wolff said the strike could last a while. “We've built up so much anger over the last year and a half waiting for a contract,” he said.

At Treu House of Munch, 50 unionized employees have been working without a contract since May 1. They are angry about pay cuts sought by management and cuts already imposed.

Drivers, who had been paid 47-cents a case, had their pay cut by 20 percent last September and now managers want another 8 percent, union members said. Before the cuts, some drivers were earning $66,000 a year.

While the pay is good by Toledo standards, the pace of work has increased, drivers said. The average driver delivers 140,000 cases a year compared with 85,000 cases 25 years ago.

Several bars, groceries, and other customers contacted said they are monitoring the labor situation but do not foresee major problems.

The Toledo Mud Hens have enough beer on hand to last through July 3, the end of the current home game stretch, said General Manager Joseph Napoli.

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