Published: 06/03/2012

Developments in the Baltic countries rarely make the news, but the UK press has given extended coverage to global brewer Carlsberg’s use of a court decision declaring beer an “essential service” to block strike action at its Lithuanian brewery.

On February 28, Unite National Officer Jennie Formby wrote Carlsberg top boss Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen in support of the union, cautioning him that “The determination that beer is an essential service in Lithuania cannot be allowed to stand.” Unite released the statement to the press, and they’ve been having a field day.

“Worst excuse in the world”, declared the Daily Mirror on March 5. “Brewing is a vitally essential service…probably” headlined the article in the same day’s edition of the Times, which added that “to the workers at the Carlsberg factory in Lithuania it is probably the worst bit of strike-busting in the world.” The specialized web publication Just Drinks featured the story, honoring the union and the IUF with a link to our urgent action appeal. And Carlsberg was quoted in the Telegraph saying “We did not use those words, they were used by the lawyers…”

This is the second-worst excuse, for Carlsberg, certainly failed to publicly repudiate the June 20, 2011 court decision, and it’s safe to assume their lawyers were well rewarded for their services. And the company’s statement to Just Drinks that they will “fully follow the decision of the court” is misleading, to say the least. The Supreme Court of Lithuania is deliberating on the issue because the company has consistently appealed lower court decisions authorizing the union to take strike action. Whether beer is an essential service will be decided by the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association, because the IUF has brought the matter to their attention through a formal complaint.

For the past three years, the workers have had no wage increase while business has boomed. That is why, in the negotiations last year which went nowhere due to management’s refusal to bargain, the union demanded a 12.4% increase over the coming 3 years – to compensate for three years of lost wages.

Carlsberg has used the courts to impose an agreement after rejecting all efforts at good faith negotiation. This triggered a mechanism for automatic renewal of the old agreement, and the company, having successfully banned a strike in the summer peak season, has since been hiding behind the dubious court decision that strike action is unnecessary and illegal because the workers’ wages are above the national average (no arguments with the lawyers on this either, as far as we know).

The entire trade union movement of the country rightly perceives this as a major threat to the collective bargaining process, and fears that if Carlsberg gets away with it other employers will be encouraged to follow suit.

Carlsberg’s efforts to distance itself from their lawyers’ assault on trade union and collective bargaining rights are as unconvincing as their ongoing efforts to promote their company as a “socially responsible” employer. Now is the time to reverse course and start the long delayed negotiations.