Feb 27, 2024 - Business

There's a strike on tap at the largest U.S. brewer

Illustration of an empty 6-pack holder with a picket sign reading "STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!" where the bottles would be.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

5,000 workers at Anheuser-Busch InBev, the nation's largest brewer, could walk off the job as soon as Friday, the day after their current union contract expires.

Why it matters: The strike organized by the Teamsters would disrupt operations at 12 breweries  more than a quarter of the company's U.S. workforce — and would be the biggest walkout of the year, threatening to disrupt a cherished liquid resource.

  • This would be the second strike in the beer industry in 2024 — around 400 workers, also Teamsters, are striking at a Molson Coors plant in Fort Worth, Texas — nonunion employees are carrying on with making beer there.
  • Anheuser-Busch workers haven't gone out on strike since 1976.

It's "a make-or-break week for Anheuser-Busch," the Teamsters posted Monday on X. "Come March 1, if we don't have a contract, you'll be running out of beer," they posted Sunday.

  • A spokesperson for AB InBev, which makes Bud Light, Busch, Stella Artois, and other brands, said in a statement to Axios that the brewer, as a precautionary measure, has "a robust continuity plan in place" to keep the product flowing. Securing a contract is a "top priority."

Between the lines: The company muscled through a PR crisis last year that it's still digging out of — the last thing it needs now is more bad press.

  • Drinkers boycotted Bud Light last year in light of its sponsorship campaign with a transgender woman, hurting sales. The drink was dethroned as the nation's leading beer.
  • A lot of the union members said they didn't have any communication from management about the whole incident, says Kara Deniz, a spokesperson for the Teamsters.
  • Union members say they're seeing their overtime get cut back, also with little discussion from leadership.

Zoom in: Contract negotiations began back in September.

  • After some initial progress on healthcare provisions, talks stalled out when the negotiations turned to job security.
  • Union members' top demand: job guarantees written into the contract. Under the agreement that's about to expire, the company can't close breweries — and including that kind of protection this time around is a critical issue, Deniz says.
  • Workers also want a decent pay raise. (Workers at the Molson Coors brewery were offered less than a $1 an hour increase, according to the Teamsters: "Insulting.")

The big picture: The resurgence in union activity and activism in 2023 isn't a one-off.

  • In fact, the good deals coming out of strikes and strike threats in 2023 are likely pushing more workers toward a more hard-line stance in 2024.
  • The deal the Teamsters negotiated for UPS workers last year is a factor informing thinking on contract talks now, says Tyler Tisdale, a union member who works in operations at an AB InBev plant in Williamsburg, Va.
  • "We're finally showing these companies that corporate greed will no longer be tolerated, and we're ready to take what we need to take to stay [unified]," he says, using language that echoes that of labor leaders like the UAW's Shawn Fain and Teamsters president Sean O'Brien.

Reality check: Talk gets pretty heated in the days before a contract expires, but there's still time to work things out.

What to watch: The sides are set to meet this week. The company will report its fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.

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