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Nuclear Option

A new weapon is unveiled to end the beer battle


With four Teamster strikes and a spate of boycotts over the past 32 years, Lohr Distributing Co. has a well-earned reputation for playing hardball with organized labor. Now the distributor -- the sole Anheuser-Busch wholesaler for the city of St. Louis -- has earned the ire of some of its retailers as well.

Joining forces with the Teamsters, an organized effort is underway to place an initiative on the November statewide ballot that, if enacted, could have the Lohr brothers crying in their beer.

David Carter, owner of KC's Bar and Grill, is exhibit A in the escalating struggle. He remembers a recent phone call he received from Lohr co-owner Steve Lohr. Since May 22, when the Teamsters Local 600 went on strike, Carter has stopped serving A-B products in a show of solidarity with the union's 24 drivers and warehouse employees who have been replaced with non-union workers.

"[Lohr] warned me if I didn't start buying his product, I'd be out of business in six months," says Carter. "It was pure bullying as I see it. Many of my customers are union workers. If I don't honor the Lohr boycott, I risk losing a substantial amount of business."

Carter says the conversation turned ugly when Lohr told him he wasn't about to back down. "I ended the call by inviting him down to the bar in six months," recalls Carter. "I said I'd buy him a Miller Lite."

Carter's bravado is rare. Among the 500 or so city retailers who rely on Lohr to provide them with A-B libations, just 44 have honored the Teamsters' call to boycott.

The reluctance of other businesses to follow speaks to A-B's popularity. Although it might be difficult to believe today, it's only been within the past 30 years that Anheuser-Busch has won over St. Louis drinkers.

"In the 1976 strike with Lohr, A-B wasn't the number-one seller in St. Louis," says Gary Scott, a striking Teamster who's driven for Lohr since the early 1980s. "Back then Falstaff was the number-one seller in St. Louis. A-B was number two, with Schlitz right on its heels."

Today A-B enjoys a near-50 percent market-share of all beer sold in the United States. In St. Louis that number jumps even higher, with Grey Eagle Distributors, the St. Louis County A-B wholesaler, reporting a 77 percent market-share in the county. Teamsters say that prior to the strike, Lohr enjoyed an even greater percentage of the market, at nearly 85 percent of all beer sales in the city.

"I'm pleased with the amount of support we've received from retailers," says Scott. "To have a small business go without Budweiser in St. Louis is asking a lot."

The Teamsters argue that Lohr is well aware of A-B's stranglehold on the local market, which is why it's willing to risk losing a few retailers, such as KC's Bar and Grill, if it means it can ultimately break the union.

The Lohr brothers could not be reached for comment.

Over the past fifteen years, the number of union workers employed by the company has dropped from 63 to 24, with half of those cuts coming in just the past five years. Lohr's current proposal would further erode the number of full-time workers to as few as fifteen, says Tony Giamanco, shop steward and strike captain at Lohr.

A contentious issue with the striking Teamsters is a new delivery system that would enable drivers to increase the number of cases they deliver each day from 700 to 1,400. Under Lohr's contract with the Teamsters that expired in February, drivers earned between $125 and $255 per day. Lohr's new proposal would keep the minimum pay at $125, while increasing the maximum pay by ten bucks, to $265 per day.

"Essentially they want us to work twice as hard for the same pay, delivering 1,400 cases for virtually the same pay as 700 cases," maintains Giamanco.

Another sticking point is healthcare, with the company asking the drivers to cover a larger share of their medical expenses.

At a rally that attracted some 400 union sympathizers outside Anheuser-Busch headquarters last week, labor leaders pointed their fingers toward the castle-like confines of the brewery and demanded that August Busch IV, heir apparent to the Busch dynasty, step in to end the labor dispute. The Teamsters say A-B has worked behind the scenes in the past to end strikes, but so far has done nothing to intervene this time.

Like fiefdoms awarded to members of the royal court, the King of Beers has long used its lucrative distributorships as a way to reward family and friends. Most recently it was David Stokes, the 36-year-old son of A-B chief executive Patrick Stokes, who benefited from the brewery's largess. Last month, the announcement came that he would take over Grey Eagle Distributors, which posted sales of $108 million in 2004.

The story behind Lohr is much the same. In 1964, the late August "Gussie" Busch Jr. offered his long-time friend and A-B executive Curt Lohr sole rights to the St. Louis distributorship. When Lohr stepped down, his sons, Ron and Steve, inherited the business. Unlike other A-B distributorships in the St. Louis area, the Lohrs have constantly butted heads with unions, offering less pay and fewer benefits than their counterparts, say Teamsters.

How long the Lohr brothers plan to operate without union drivers this time around is anyone's guess, but Teamster Local 600 president Dan McKay says Ron Lohr showed no signs of backing down during a meeting the two held early last week.

Reporting on his summit with Lohr, McKay yelled through a bullhorn at his fellow Teamsters assembled at the rally: "Ron Lohr can kiss my Teamster ass!"

The Teamsters say they're now prepared to take the strike beyond a mere war of words. Last week Retailers for Justice, a group sympathetic to the Teamsters, began a petition drive aimed at repealing the state's Territorial Rights Law, which requires retailers to purchase beer only from the designated wholesaler within their region.

Retailers for Justice will need 136,000 signatures to place the issue on the November ballot. While they admit it's a long shot, they say it's the only way the bill could survive the ax from the powerful Anheuser-Busch lobby in Jefferson City.

David Carter at KC's Bar and Grill says he'll sign if it will allow him the chance to buy his A-B beer from anyone but Lohr. "If I could get Budweiser from anyone else," says Carter, "I'd start serving the beer in a heartbeat."

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