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Post date: 03/09/2011 - 20:50

Moosehead in Third Week of Lock out but Ask Keep Drinking Moosehead

Moosehead lockout: Are workers getting fair shake?
SAINT JOHN - With the lockout of 172 Moosehead Breweries Ltd. employees into its third week, a University of New Brunswick professor is saying the crux of the labour dispute is widely misunderstood

Moosehead lockout: Are workers getting fair shake?
SAINT JOHN - With the lockout of 172 Moosehead Breweries Ltd. employees into its third week, a University of New Brunswick professor is saying the crux of the labour dispute is widely misunderstood

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Economics professor Rod Hill Rod Hill, who teaches economics at UNB Saint John, says while on the surface it may seem like management is fully covering the workers' post-retirement prescription benefits, it's not necessarily the case.

"If we think about who's really paying for it, it's part of the worker's overall compensation," Hill said. "If the workers are asked to give up some of that benefit, they'll be the ones that are losing."

The workers have accepted wage freezes and other concessions in the past in order to keep this benefit - which should be regarded as part of their compensation, Hill said.

"It's just like their wages. It's part of what they're getting for their work."

Hill is not associated with either side, but says he has a general interest in labour disputes and is closely following the pension disputes in Wisconsin, where the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, has been accused of trying to break civic unions.

Hill says the company's way of framing the debate - by asking workers to pay 30 per cent of the post-retirement benefits for future retirees - oversimplifies the issue, and works to Moosehead's advantage in the battle over public perception.

But Joel Levesque, the spokesman for Moosehead, said it would be difficult for someone who isn't close to the negotiating table to comment on the issue.

"Our employees are well compensated, with rates from $28.05 to $32 an hour and an excellent benefits package," Levesque said, refusing to respond directly to Hill's statements.

"We're a small company here trying to survive against giant competitors. We need to do what we need to do, and we need to take steps to make sure the company remains viable."

Levesque has said the cost of the prescription benefits is into the millions, but he would not release a precise figure.

Levesque suggested a benefits consultant would provide a real picture as to industry standards with post-retirement benefits, however consultants reached by the Telegraph-Journal Monday did not wish to comment publicly on the issue.

Jeff Stoddard, president of the Brewery and Soft Drink Workers Local 362, agreed with the professor's comments and said the union expected the company to set aside money for post-retirement benefits when they accepted wage freezes.

"The money appears to come from Moosehead because we're trusting them with our deferred wages," Stoddard said. "What should be a large fund doesn't exist."

Meanwhile, Stoddard said "a few brave souls" continued to plod along Main Street in the rain on Monday, after two full weeks of being locked out.

The workers have been locked out since Feb. 20. Beer production resumed by the end of the first week.

Non-unionized managers and office staff - who represent 138 of Moosehead's 310 employees - have been "meeting market demands" by continuing beer production, Levesque said. He did not say how the amount of beer produced compares to when all unionized staff are on the line.

He said the company will be willing to go back to the negotiating table when the union's bargaining team is ready to negotiate "seriously" - or when "they will sit down and actually talk to us abut the issue at hand and be willing to negotiate - not ignore it and hope it goes away."

Stoddard said the longer the lockout goes on, the more bitter employees become.

"I guess you can't ever estimate how much bitterness is built up between labour and companies," he said.

"It's too bad 170 families and the brewery itself has to suffer."

The last Moosehead lockout in May of 2000 saw workers locked out for a week.

KEEP DRINKING MOOSEHEAD

SAINT JOHN - Locked-out Moosehead Breweries Ltd. workers want people to keep drinking the beer coming from their west side plant - even if they're not the ones making it.

"We've received multiple, multiple calls on a daily basis from across Canada on whether we're in support of a boycott of Moosehead Breweries and their products," Jeff Stoddard, president of the Brewery Workers Local 362, said at a union press conference Tuesday.

"We're here to emphatically state, absolutely not."

Stoddard said that might be the opposite approach many unions would take in a lock-out situation, but he said the 172 locked-out workers are proud of the product and want the company to remain viable whenever they return to work.

"When this is all over - and hopefully it will end sooner rather than later - we'd like to see maybe an increase in our market sales," Stoddard said, with a backdrop of Moosehead Light beer cases and union slogans behind him.

The workers are in their third week of a lockout after talks broke down Feb. 20. The company wants workers to pay 30 per cent of their post-retirement prescription drug benefits for future retirees.

The unionized members now get full coverage, although they consider the benefits "deferred wages." They say they have taken wage freezes in the past in exchange for the prescription drug coverage.

Moosehead spokesman Joel Levesque said the union's promotion of Moosehead products displays the amount of respect demonstrated by both sides through the dispute.

"I've seen many labour disputes over the years in Saint John, and from that regard, this is not a typical Saint John labour dispute," he said.

"Basically, we've agreed to disagree, and we're trying to resolve our differences."

Still, there doesn't appear to be any movement to resume negotiations.

The union says the ball is "squarely" in management's court, while on Monday, Levesque said talks won't resume until the union is ready to negotiate seriously.

"Without being sharp, to say we have been there without being serious is kind of an offence to our negotiating team," Luke Coleman, the local's vice-president, said at the press conference.

"We've been serious from Day 1."

The union has said an alternative arrangement, using a provincial drug plan, would save the company 22 per cent on post-retirement prescription drug costs without have any effect on the employee.

Coleman said he realizes promoting Moosehead beer doesn't give the company - which continues to produce with non-unionized managers and office staff - any incentive to bring the union workers back on the line.

"But we continue to support this product. We'll support it through thick and thin, and if it ends up hurting us in the end, we'll just have to deal with it when it comes," he said.

The workers have started a Facebook group, Brewery Workers Local 362, which has more than 180 members. They also plan to invite family and other unions to join the picketing in front of the Main Street West brewery on Thursday.

Facebook Link http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/home.php?sk=group_191518994202698&ap=1