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Teamsters strike Minnesota beer distributor over keg safety issue

ST. PAUL—Drivers and warehouse workers of the largest beer distributor in Minnesota went on strike Friday over safety concerns.

J.J. Taylor Distributing and the Teamsters Local 792 union have been in contract negotiations since February. The union rejected management's most recent offer for a three-year contract last week, which traded an increase in wages for making a two-man keg delivery system one-man.

"The strike has nothing to do with monetary issues," said Ed Reynoso, union spokesman. "It has everything to do with safety."

The company historically has had five routes that deliver nothing but kegs. These routes included a driver and a helper to move the kegs from the truck into the customer establishments. The company hopes to save money by eliminating the routes and incorporating the keg deliveries with the packaged beer routes.

David Miller, head of the company's human resources and safety department at the corporate office in Jupiter, Fla., said the prevalence of craft brews has cut into "historically popular" beers, forcing the company to look for ways to save money.

"It's a mixed bag," Miller said. "We have had some pressure on our core brands that have been historically popular. A lot of the craft beer industry is slightly cannibalizing the historically popular beers."

The union says making one person deliver 175-pound kegs by themselves is unsafe, even when using dollies to transport.

"A vast majority of the bars in St. Paul and Minneapolis have to be delivered to basements," Reynoso explained.

However, Miller said the company is one of the safest wholesalers in the country.

"We were trying to balance out the routes, but we were never doing so to compromise safety," Miller said.

In response to the strike, J.J. Taylor hired other drivers to continue deliveries.

Reynoso said he understands the company's stance, but disagrees with its solution.

"We realize the employer has taken a hit because of the increase in craft brews in Minnesota," he said. "We get it. They say in order to compete, they need to change their delivery system."

But, he added, "Our safety is not up for sale or trade. Our safety is of the utmost importance."

Miller said the issue may be less about safety for workers than seniority. Workers with seniority are allowed to bring helpers on more lucrative routes. But Miller added that seniority routes are not as labor intensive, so it doesn't make sense to have two people work them.

Drivers, such as Dan Dahlberg, said other than this issue, they are satisfied with the contract.

"While we are paid good wages, what good is it if we can't enjoy time with our families free from injuries and pain?" Dahlberg said. "I'll be out here on the strike line as long as it takes to make sure we have a safe place to work."

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