Striking drivers angered by hiring of replacements Bond Distributing Co.'s move follows a national trend

September 02, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

"Permanent replacement" is a word Don Gick didn't hear in 1976 or 1979 or 1982, when he and other beer truck drivers went on strike against Bond Distributing Co.

But since some 90 Teamsters union members walked out three weeks ago, it has become a fighting and a frightening word, a threat by the company that strikers will lose their jobs. New hires will keep their jobs; the strikers can apply for any vacancies that are left over, Bond says.

"This time it's totally different," said Mr. Gick, who has 18 years with Bond. "We went on strike before, they let us use their bathroom. Now, they are threatening to take away our jobs."

For the beer distributor, replacements are a matter of survival, says Bond lawyer Norman R. Buchsbaum. The Teamsters did not strike the competing dealer, Winner Distributing Co., which is working overtime to sell its beers and replace Bond brands in Baltimore stores and taverns, he said. Union contracts with Winner and Bond expired June 30.

"These [new] employees have been given a promise they have regular permanent jobs if they satisfactorily pass the [45-day] probationary period. They can't be fired just because the strikers return. There are legal constraints on that," said Mr. Buchsbaum.

Unless replacements are offered permanent jobs, he said, "you don't get very good workers."

The strikers walking the picket line in front of Bond's Southwest Baltimore warehouse do not believe in their hearts that they eventually will lose their jobs. But they resent the company's use of this threat in the labor dispute. The company admits it selected some replacements even before the strike began Aug. 12.

"They're trying to take away our right to strike, instead of negotiating a new contract," said Gary Richardson, another driver. "But those scabs [replacements] don't know the first thing about servicing the customers."

Across the country, the explosive issue of hiring permanent replacements for strikers has raised tensions on both sides of the picket line.

Congress has taken up the issue as well; the House passed a bill in July to bar permanent replacements during a legal strike. In the Senate, the measure faces an uncertain fate. And President Bush has pledged to veto the measure because he says it would tip the balance of collective bargaining toward labor.

In recent years, employers such as Greyhound, Eastern Airlines, Boise Cascade and the New York Daily News screened and lined up replacements as a warning to their employees not to strike. Unions say that President Ronald Reagan's firing of 11,400 striking air traffic controllers in 1981 set the tone for hard-line employers.

In a survey of businesses threatened with strikes in 1989, the General Accounting Office of Congress found that nearly one in four companies said they planned to hire replacements for strikers.

The practice, or at least its threat in labor disputes, has gained currency in recent years, although the Supreme Court ruled in 1938 that permanent replacements were legal. Strikers could not be fired, the high court decided, but employers could replace them.

The recession has created a deep pool of unemployed looking to fill strikers' shoes.

"For jobs like this that pay $50,000 a year, you can find plenty of qualified people to cross the picket line," said Mr. Buchsbaum. (The union says a few Bond drivers make that much, but most earn less.)

Just how many replacements have been hired so far, he would not say. On a weekday morning last week, a long line of beer trucks were parked in the Bond lot instead of delivering products to customers.

While the striking drivers claim that deliveries have been seriously disrupted, the company says that it has been providing customers with plenty of Millers and Coors beer -- for which Bond is the exclusive distributor in Baltimore city and Baltimore County.

Spot checks of package stores and bars found few examples of severe shortages, with most establishments switching to other brands when the Bond products run out. But store owners said they were missing regular deliveries.

Sam Zalatimo of Danville Liquors in Dundalk said that he had received one delivery since the strike began and that the supply was limited. "They called to tell me I could get $2 off on a case if I picked it up myself, but I won't cross no picket line."

For the members of Teamsters Local 1010, the strike began over a company proposal to cut driver income and some jobs by eliminating their sales commissions and sales functions for their route customers. Bond wants to use salesmen to take orders, with drivers only delivering the stock.

After six weeks of bargaining, the Bond union employees abruptly voted to go on strike, while their colleagues at Winner agreed to continue working and negotiating.

That response prompted the company to implement its replacement worker plan "to protect its market and its market share," Mr. Buchsbaum said. "We were making real progress [in negotiations] and a few hotheads in the union may have made a tragic error for the group."

Both sides indicate that the economic issue could be resolved. But the replacement worker issue remains a barrier.

"We're not going to lose our jobs, they're going to take us all back," said Mr. Gick, who last week began collecting $200 a week in union strike benefits. "It seems like they're trying to bust the union."

The impasse remains. Last week, union negotiators said a new bargaining session was planned for Tuesday. The company said no talks were planned after the union walked out of the last session.

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