Meet the Mom-and-Pop Company That Went from Union-Friendly to Union-Busting

Teke Wiggin June 26, 2017

Workers are on strike against the Long Island beer distributor Clare Rose. (Teamsters Joint Council 16)

When Louis Chiarel­li reflects on his 26 years at Long Island beer dis­trib­u­tor Clare Rose, he remem­bers a fam­i­ly cul­ture, com­pa­ny-wide vaca­tions and the firm’s sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion own­ers wait­ing late into hol­i­day nights for dri­vers to return from their routes.

But now he finds him­self stand­ing across the pick­et line from his long-time employ­er. He’s one of more than 100 ware­house work­ers and dri­vers who have been on strike since Clare Rose slashed dri­vers’ wages and end­ed their pen­sion plan, after alleged­ly fail­ing to budge sig­nif­i­cant­ly in negotiations. 

Now enter­ing its ninth week, the strike is a case study in how rela­tions between fam­i­ly-owned busi­ness­es and union­ized work­ers can take a turn for the worse after man­age­ment pass­es on to a new gen­er­a­tion and new indus­try pres­sures take hold. 

But the con­flict also offers a play­book and some hope to squeezed work­ers: While the strike con­tin­ues, Clare Rose recent­ly agreed to return to the nego­ti­at­ing table.

Clare Rose claims that the union’s pen­sion plan is severe­ly under­fund­ed, and wage decreas­es are nec­es­sary to shift to a mod­ern dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tem. But Team­sters Local 812, the union rep­re­sent­ing the strik­ing work­ers, says the cuts are dra­con­ian and accus­es the com­pa­ny of try­ing to zap the union.

Clare Rose is the sole dis­trib­u­tor of Anheuser-Busch and Heineken in Long Island. The firm was found­ed in 1936 by Clare Rose, who at one point was a union member.

Con­tin­u­ing their father’s lega­cy, Clare Rose’s sons, Ric and Mark, paid gen­er­ous salaries and ben­e­fits to work­ers, form­ing close bonds with many employ­ees. When busi­ness was good, they would spon­sor com­pa­ny-wide trips to the Caribbean.

After the broth­ers stepped aside, Clare Rose’s grand­son, Sean Rose, and his cousin, Lisa, took the reigns in the ear­ly 2000s. It was under their lead­er­ship that Clare Rose took on more of a cor­po­rate feel, accord­ing to union members.

Still, the com­pa­ny was hailed as an exem­plary employ­er by Local 812 in a 2013 newsletter.

But storm clouds began to gath­er when Clare Rose brought on Lit­tler Mendel­son, a law firm that touts exten­sive expe­ri­ence in strike man­age­ment,” to help with nego­ti­at­ing a new con­tract this year, accord­ing to Mark Pool­er, a dri­ver who says he’s fac­ing upwards of a 25 per­cent wage cut.

Sean Rose, who began work­ing at Clare Rose at a young age, says main­tain­ing the firm’s fam­i­ly cul­ture has been dif­fi­cult as the com­pa­ny has grown to over 300 employees.

Clare Rose is prof­itable, but the cuts were part of a big-pic­ture deci­sion” to increase effi­cien­cy and make the com­pa­ny stronger and bet­ter in the long term for all our employ­ees,” he said in an inter­view with In These Times last week.

Would his grand­fa­ther sup­port the move? Absolute­ly, 100 per­cent,” he said.

When a fam­i­ly busi­ness pass­es into new hands, rela­tion­ships with unions can suf­fer because own­er-employ­ee con­nec­tions often don’t run as deep, says Chris Rhomberg, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Ford­ham University.

Heirs com­mon­ly feel like they want to shore things up, and they’re wor­ried about the long-term com­pet­i­tive pres­sures on the com­pa­ny,” adds Jan­ice Fine, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers School of Man­age­ment and Labor Relations. 

These dynam­ics may also have been at work in a labor con­flict at anoth­er fam­i­ly-owned beer dis­trib­u­tor in New Jer­sey. Like Clare Rose, Shore Point Dis­trib­ut­ing Com­pa­ny was a third-gen­er­a­tion firm accused of aban­don­ing its roots when the firm locked out Team­ster work­ers, pri­mar­i­ly for refus­ing to give up their pen­sion plan.

While the Team­sters pro­claimed vic­to­ry ear­li­er this month, Shore Point was still able to end the union pen­sion plan.

I think this is going to hap­pen all over the [place]…” Sean Rose said, con­tend­ing that Shore Point made sound busi­ness decisions.” 

Clare Rose was the last mate­r­i­al whole­saler” to oper­ate a sys­tem under which dri­vers both deliv­er and ped­dle prod­ucts, he said. The explo­sion of craft beers and brands neces­si­tat­ed split­ting sales and deliv­ery into sep­a­rate jobs, accord­ing to Rose.

But Local 812 says the reduc­tion to dri­ver wages is not com­men­su­rate with the reduc­tion of their respon­si­bil­i­ties. And Clare Rose’s pro­pos­al to replace the union’s pen­sion plan with a 401(k) would slash Clare Rose’s annu­al con­tri­bu­tion per work­er by rough­ly 90 per­cent, the union says.

The elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, who is expect­ed to shift the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) to the right, like­ly played a role in Clare Rose and Shore Point’s deci­sion to play hard­ball, argues Joseph McCartin, a labor his­to­ri­an at George­town University.

As it turns out, one of Trump’s top picks to fill a vacan­cy at the NLRB, William Emanuel, is an attor­ney at Lit­tler Mendel­son, the law firm rep­re­sent­ing Clare Rose. Rose says Trump’s elec­tion had no impact” on his cal­cu­lus, and added that he didn’t vote for Trump. (He wouldn’t say what can­di­date he did vote for.) 

But Clare Rose cer­tain­ly hasn’t pulled any punch­es. It quick­ly hired per­ma­nent replace­ment work­ers and noti­fied union mem­bers on how to end their union membership.

The union has waged a cam­paign on mul­ti­ple fronts, ral­ly­ing pub­lic sup­port, protest­ing at beer events, fil­ing com­plaints with the NLRB and secur­ing a review of Clare Rose’s gov­ern­ment subsidies.

The strik­ers have placed a spe­cial focus on pres­sur­ing Anheuser-Busch to push Clare Rose to the nego­ti­at­ing table.

The signs and cam­paigns boy­cotting our beers are unwar­rant­ed,” said Anheuser-Busche spokes­woman Gem­ma Hart, refer­ring to the strike in a statement.

On June 22, the union post­poned a planned ral­ly out­side Anheuser-Busch’s Newark, New Jer­sey brew­ery, announc­ing the next day that Clare Rose had agreed to reopen nego­ti­a­tions with par­tic­i­pa­tion from a pro­fes­sion­al mediator. 

Local 812 hopes to reach a new con­tract, but the strike will continue. 

Teke Wig­gin cov­ers labor, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and hous­ing. Fol­low him at @tkwiggin.
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