Workers at 156-year-old Wisconsin brewery stage first strike in decades

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Leinenkugel’s brewery staff walk off the job over wages that they say lag far behind inflation

Rookies Pub in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin has a Leinenkugel’s mural on its outside wall but has stopped serving the beer to show solidarity with striking workers. (Nicole Neri/For The Washington Post)

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — John McGillis earned $18 an hour when he started working at Leinenkugel’s brewery in 1990, a top wage befitting a company recognized as a community cornerstone since it began brewing for local lumberjacks in 1867.

Now more than three decades later, McGillis is earning only $5.50 more — a meager increase that prompted him to down tools last week and join forty colleagues in a picket line outside the brewery’s red-brick walls in a push for better pay. They walked off the job just as Leinenkugel’s was entering the crucial Oktoberfest brewing season.

“We’ve just fallen behind every contract,” McGillis said after wrapping up a strike shift next to a rushing creek, where neighbors have been dropping off doughnuts, pizza and words of encouragement. “We’re behind what everybody else in this area is paying.”

Waving a “Boycott Leinenkugel’s” sign and holding a fist aloft as drivers honked in support, Wade Dehnke said the wage increases the company recently offered the workers’ union won’t begin to keep pace with rising prices. “If you’ve bought groceries lately, if you got your insurance bill lately, it’s just, we’ve been going backwards and backwards,” said Dehnke, a certified welder with several skilled licenses who earns $31.47 an hour after eleven years. Starting wages at the plant are $19 an hour, according to the Teamsters union.

During a summer of nationwide labor unrest, with large unions representing Hollywood employees, UPS drivers and autoworkers either striking or threatening to strike, the concerns of several dozen small-town brewery workers might be easy to overlook. But the Leinenkugel’s strike shows the breadth and diversity of worker angst after years of wages lagging inflation. Small pockets of picketing are cropping up in many local communities across the nation, including at a sour cream plant in De Pere, Wis., a paper mill in Grand Rapids, Minn., and among six workers at Three Brothers Coffee in Nashville. Wages, health-care coverage and mandatory overtime are among workers’ top concerns.

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Like the larger worker groups, the Leinekugel’s employees feel the time to push back is now — while widespread labor shortages continue to give them leverage. And many in the community are showing solidarity, with some local bars refusing to sell the beer and county Democrats calling for a boycott. “This strike, like many labor strikes around the U.S., has come home to us. We must show and give our support,” the Democratic Party of Chippewa County said in a Facebook post.

The brewery workers, staging their first strike since 1985, left thousands of filled kegs, cans and bottles behind when they walked off the job — product they said management is now struggling to get out the door. “I believe they had like 44 semis or so scheduled to ship out of here this week. And I think we’ve seen maybe five leave, so they’re way, way behind,” said Ryan Prill, who works on the brewing team.

In an email, Molson Coors, which owns the brewery, said it made a “competitive offer” in wage negotiations with the workers’ Teamsters representatives — an offer that “exceeds local-market rates for similar unionized roles.” The company, which brews Leinenkugel’s at two other locations, in Milwaukee and Fort Worth, added that it’s “hopeful for a resolution” and said it is “shipping as much Leinie’s beer” as it was before the strike.

The company and union declined to discuss details of the wage negotiations. Workers said the offered raise falls far behind inflation, which has jumped by 18 percent since their last contract in 2020. Average hourly wages in the private sector grew by 14 percent nationwide over the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The tension marks a big change for the locally beloved brewery founded by Jacob Leinenkugel, who came from a family of German brewers. He chose a site next to Duncan Creek that offered pure spring water, and he found a ready customer base in the lumber industry that was then taking off in this corner of northwestern Wisconsin.

Over time the brand became a favorite in Midwestern states, where radio and TV ads emphasized the beer’s small-town roots.

“It’s, like, the beer I learned to love beer on, when I was in college,” said Ashley Gauger, a teacher from the Milwaukee area, as she sipped a glass on the patio at Leinie’s Lodge, a company-owned bar next to the brewery. Stopping off during a road trip to Minnesota, Gauger said she only learned of the strike as she sat down to drink and heard the noise from the picket line. “My wage increases never meet inflation, so I understand and I support fair pay,” she said.

The Leinenkugel family sold the company to Miller Brewing Co. in 1988 but has continued to hold top management roles at the brewery, which after several mergers became part of Molson Coors. When Dick Leinenkugel retired as president last year, his nephew, Tony Bugher, took over. Still, longtime employees say the atmosphere has felt steadily more corporate as the years have gone by.

“It’s no longer run — I don’t care what anyone says — by the Leinenkugels,” Kelly Jo Bowe, a 28-year veteran of the plant, said from the strike line. “It is a corporation. And they are treating us that way.” Bugher and other family members either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests.

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Employees signed their last contract just as the pandemic began in 2020, a worrying time that probably prompted them to settle for a substandard agreement, said Prill of the brewing team. “I feel like we got almost scared a little bit into signing that deal back then,” he said. During negotiations this time around, the company’s initial offer was “even less of a raise than we got on the covid contract,” he added, calling that “really insulting.”

The worsening atmosphere and pay has led to high turnover at the plant — a big change from the old days, when locals coveted the jobs and often stayed until retirement, Bowe and others said.

Saige Anderson, who started in the packaging department two years ago, said he and his wife, who also works full time, have watched their day care costs rise far faster than their wages, forcing them to cut back on travel and entertainment for their two children. As some of the brewery’s older employees retire, Leinenkugel’s is going to need to up its starting wages to attract more young workers raising families, Anderson said.

In a mark of solidarity, several local bars have stopped serving the beer, including Rookies, a watering hole with a giant Leinenkugel’s mural on its outside wall.

On the other side of the Chippewa River, Burly’s bar has taken down its Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy tap and removed the brand’s bottles from its fridge. “I have customers who’ve been coming around for years that work there, so I wanted to support them,” said owner Brian Krista.

A short walk from the brewery, at the annual Northern Wisconsin State Fair, the Leinenkugel’s pavilion was still attracting patrons who were only starting to absorb news of the strike.

Mark Cance, a retiree sipping a Summer Shandy, said he wasn’t ready to boycott the beer.

“They’re a big presence. In the past they’ve always been big contributors to different community functions,” he said of the brewery. “Whether that’s going to hold true in the future with the big out-of-town corporate ownership, we don’t know.

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.

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