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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Drinking on the Job Comes to a Head at Carlsberg

The Wall Street Journal

Head Office Tries to Cut Down Drinking Time at Work. Employees get Pissed.

HOJE-TAASTRUP, Denmark—Michael Christiansen, a truck driver turned union representative, is fighting hard to preserve one of the last, best perks of the beer industry: the right to drink on the job.

Mr. Christiansen's union brethren are wort boilers, bottlers, packers and drivers at Carlsberg A/S, Denmark's largest brewer. For a century, they've had the right to cool off during a hard day's work with a crisp lager.

But on April 1, the refrigerators were idled and daily beer spoils were capped at three pint-sized plastic cups from a dining hall during lunch hour.

"This is a right workers have had for 100 years," Mr. Christiansen says. "Carlsberg has taken it away without any negotiating at all."

This week, Mr. Christiansen led a strike of 260 Carlsberg employees at a distribution center in this Copenhagen suburb. On Wednesday, 500 workers at Carlsberg's Fredericia brewery in southern Denmark joined in. On Friday afternoon, Mr. Christiansen sent his men back to work temporarily after management agreed to renegotiate workers' right to free beer in coming weeks.

Mr. Christiansen, a tall man with a salt-and-pepper goatee, argues the right to tip a cold one at work is as sacred as other rights enjoyed by Copenhagen-based Carlsberg workers, such as a year's sick leave at full pay, an average annual salary of $59,000 and two free crates of beer monthly.

At 2 p.m. here Friday, about 100 workers congregated in a parking lot full of empty beer crates and forklifts and agreed to temporarily end their strike.

"We need to keep our beer," said employee Juseif Izaivi, 32 years old. "I need a beer when I take a cigarette break."

Drunkenness isn't a problem, workers argued. "There is sometimes some whistling and maybe some singing, but that's not connected to the drinking," said Martin Juralowicz, a 31-year-old forklift operator.

Workday drinking used to be commonplace at breweries around the world. But the practice has faded amid concerns about workplace accidents, productivity losses and drunken driving. Carlsberg is one of the few big breweries where it's still condoned.

But the brewer's management frets that tippling on the job is a risky anachronism, especially for those operating heavy equipment. Although the alcohol-related accident rate is "close to zero," according to Carlsberg spokesman Jens Bekke, there are other issues at stake. Research shows drinking can make productivity go flat. "You can't have all these discussions about corporate social responsibility and allow this," Mr. Bekke says.

Even under the new rules, drivers of Carlsberg's 600 beer trucks, vans and cars can still drink up to three bottles of brew daily. But now company vehicles come equipped with an Alcolock, a device drivers must blow into before turning on the ignition. If the device detects excessive alcohol, the vehicle won't start.

Mr. Christiansen says the Alcolocks are fine, so long as the company doesn't take away the suds. "A driver usually has one beer on his lunch break, another after his shift and maybe he gives the third one away," says the 40-year-old, who quit driving a truck two years ago to be a union rep.

Carlsberg's new policy was sparked by a survey revealing that 93% of Danish companies have a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol. "We don't want to be left behind," says Anne-Marie Skov, a Carlsberg vice president.

Given its 60% market share here, Carlsberg is likely to influence rivals. Workers enjoy beer rights at all the country's 120 breweries, says Per Sten Nielsen of the Danish Brewers Association. "If Carlsberg is able to follow through with this, others are bound to follow."

In Belgium, monks at the six monasteries that still brew beers are allowed to drink their product at lunch. "It is usually a light version of the beer they sell," says Joris Pattyn, co-author of the book, "100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die."

At Belgium-based Anheuser Busch-InBev, the world's largest brewer by sales, brewery workers in Belgium once were allowed to serve themselves from on-site refrigerators. The influx of foreign investors and worried insurance companies halted that.

Since 2005, the global headquarters in Leuven has offered only non-alcoholic beverages in the canteen and refrigerators, a spokeswoman says. However, workers at distribution centers can still drink beer during the workday.

Beer manufacturers in Germany and the U.K. generally are dry. Fuller, Smith & Turner PLC, which makes the cask ale London Pride, once had a free tap at its West London brewery that served pints to employees.

When the tap was turned off a few decades ago, disappointed workers marked the spot with a wreath, a spokeswoman says.

In the U.S., drinking on the job was common before Prohibition, but gradually has disappeared since the law was repealed in 1933, says Maureen Ogle, a beer historian and author in Ames, Iowa.

Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co., the maker of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, says his father and his co-workers used to guzzle beer during the workday at Ohio breweries in the 1940s.

"You would just fill your bucket and you'd drink," says Mr. Koch. Brewing "used to be much more physical, and it tended to be hot" inside breweries.

Breweries are now filled with fast-moving bottling lines and other equipment. "You just can't drink and operate machinery," Mr. Koch says. Boston Beer doesn't permit brewery workers to drink, though at the corporate office, workers can pour brew from a tap or grab a bottle from a cooler.

Miller Brewing ended the practice of allowing brewery workers to drink on breaks in 1986, says a spokesman for MillerCoors LLC, the joint venture formed when Miller Brewing and Coors Brewing combined in 2008.

In 1994, Coors Brewing banned beer-drinking during breaks and the lunch hour after an employee who had been drinking at its Golden, Colo., brewery drove drunk and was killed in a crash.

On Friday at Carlsberg's breweries, offices and plants, the rectangular green refrigerators in most hallways were devoid of alcohol, offering only water, milk and Coca-Cola products. The only beer to be found was in the lunch room, inside a square white box topped by a tap, near a stack of plastic cups.

"If you drink three of those at lunch, that will affect your job performance," Mr. Juralowicz said. "It's better to space out your beers, one for each of the three breaks."