Delivery drivers for Minnesota’s largest beer distributor went on strike this week over proposed changes in work conditions that they think will compromise safety.

Executives of the distribution company, J.J. Taylor, said Friday they were blindsided by the safety concerns, which they said came up after a contract had been reached. They added they would never jeopardize the well-being of employees.

The strike has not apparently disrupted distribution to stores and restaurants in the Twin Cities. J.J. Taylor hired Huffmaster, a crisis response business, to staff its routes and provide security during the strike. A union representative said some of the company’s customers are refusing deliveries by nonunion drivers.

J.J. Taylor and members of Teamsters Joint Council 32 in January began talks on a new three-year contract. The company submitted its final contract proposal to the union last week. Union members rejected the terms and the company’s 95 drivers went on strike Monday morning.

J.J. Taylor said it offered the drivers a 10 percent raise this year, followed by more modest raises the following two years if the union agreed to a new, more elastic, delivery-route structure.

But the union does not want to change the way the delivery routes operate without a guarantee that they will have a second person — called “helpers” — on any truck delivering kegs, which can weigh as much as 170 pounds.

‘Safety is off the table’

“We are willing to go back to the table, but the issue of safety is off the table. We feel that the day that employers are able to force employees to work unsafely are over,” said Edward Reynoso, political and communications director for Teamsters Joint Council 32.

The company’s new routing system would eliminate many of its keg-only routes in favor of combining kegs and cases of beer on the same truck. J.J. Taylor said this would simplify its operations by not having different trucks visit the same location on a given day. It would still have helpers on some trucks, but they would change depending on what routes were heaviest that day.

This will put drivers at risk of injury when having to load and unload heavy kegs, sometimes up and down stairs, without the assistance of a co-worker, the union said.

A company executive said drivers have dollies to offset the weight burden. “The last thing we want to do is kill our guys,” said Chris Morton, president of J.J. Taylor Minnesota. “We want them to have a manageable caseload that they can get done safely.”

The company is also one of just a handful of beer distributors that has an ergonomics specialist on-site to train workers in safe lifting. Executives in Minnesota and the company’s Florida headquarters said the union never brought up the safety issue during contract negotiations.

“We came to an agreement, the members rejected it, but we weren’t told why,” said David Miller, head of human resources and safety for J.J. Taylor. “This safety issue came up after the strike began, that’s why we are a little perplexed.”

Reynoso insists otherwise.

“They are just being totally dishonest. This has been a topic of conversation from the get-go,” Reynoso said. “To say otherwise is absurd.”

Frey, Walz visit picket line

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and U.S. Representative Tim Walz showed support for the drivers this week by visiting the picket line. Reynoso said a few metro-area liquor stores are showing support for the drivers by refusing delivery from J.J. Taylor until an agreement is reached.

Under the proposed route changes, bars, restaurants and liquor stores would no longer have the same driver each day, said Larry Yoswa, president of Teamsters Joint Council 32.

“The consistency goes away. Every day you don’t know where you are going,” Yoswa said. “You aren’t building the relationship with those liquor store owners and workers.”

The average compensation, not including benefits and retirement-plan contributions, for J.J. Taylor drivers in 2017 was $70,600, according to the company. The Teamsters did not dispute this number, but said it varies greatly.

“We are open to negotiations,” Morton, the local J.J. Taylor executive, said. “The last thing we want to see is our guys out there on the picket line.”

Reynoso said the union will return to negotiations if the company considers giving them assurances that two workers will be put on routes with keg deliveries. Without that guarantee, the workers worry the company will only add helpers during busy holiday times, leaving them to do heavy lifting by themselves the rest of the year.