Lessons Learned From An Employee Strike At Carlsberg Brewers

By Mark Swartz

Canadian Career Specialist

Danish brewer Carlsberg Group, the fourth largest beer producer in the world, recently had the suds knocked out of it by a brief employee strike at its manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Nearly 200 workers in the Hoeje Taastrup warehouse walked off the job when their free daily beer ration was cut from three bottles to one. About 50 drivers joined them in the work action as a sign of solidarity.

Was there a way to avoid this frothy situation? What are the learnings from the brief though damaging set of events?

You’re Taking Away My What??

Here’s what went down at Carlsberg, a company that has operated since 1826 in one form or another.

A policy change was introduced at the beginning of April 2010: it reduced the number of free beers for warehouse workers from three bottles a day to just one. The regulation also stipulated that the beer be consumed only in the cafeteria, solely during the workers' lunch hour. (Employees used to be able to drink throughout the day from coolers provided by the bosses.)
Adding insult to deprivation, the company still allowed its drivers the previous allocation of three free beers per day.

Cry In Your Beer, Management

Clearly the warehouse employees were miffed. Around 200 of them went on strike, blocking deliveries so that management would feel the full sting of lost sales. 50 or so drivers chose to walk off the job as well to support their suddenly sober brethren.

The strike "disrupted beer deliveries to the Zealand island," according to Carlsberg's communications director Jens Bekke. So much so, it would seem, that management was forced to sit down with the union leadership and negotiate a halt to the work stoppage.

Reasons Given By The Employees For Striking

Dennis Onsvig, union representative for the Terminal East employees, said the strike wasn’t just about the workers’ right to three beers a day. “We’ve actually stopped working because Carlsberg’s management violated the bargaining agreement by making a policy change without our input,” said Onsvig. “There was no dialogue over the issue at all, and that’s just not good enough.”

He added that Carlsberg’s drivers were still allowed to drink three beers during the course of their shifts. So the appearance of discrimination became an issue as well.

Lessons Learned From This Tempest In A Beer Cup

There are some important lessons for management and HR to be gleaned from the Carlsberg coup.

1. Think Carefully About Changing Cherished Policies
Just because you have a good rationale for altering procedures, doesn’t mean you should foist it on your employees without consulting them first – especially if you are changing a perk or privilege they’ve come to rely on.

2. Avoid Appearing To Favour One Group Of Employees Against Another
Each individual employee should feel that the new rule is being applied fairly. It should look like all involved parties will be affected equally.

Don’t Count On Logic To Bail You Out

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that logic doesn’t always prevail when trying to change policies that your employees feel strongly about.

Case in point: this whole brouhaha (brew-haha?) at Carlsberg got way out of hand with laughably distorted representations of each side’s position.

Did management really revoke the employee’s right to three bottles of beer a day? “We did remove the extra beers from all refrigerators around the worksite that the employees were allotted for the day,” says Carlsberg’s Head Of Communications, Jens Bekke. “But we have also set up taps from which staff can drink freely, and so the employees can certainly manage to drink more than one beer during their lunchtime breaks.”

Was the warehouse staff actually treated less fairly than the drivers? Carlsberg’s management had previously tried to take away their drivers’ right to three beers a day but failed. Instead, alcohol locks were installed in all company trucks, meaning that the vehicles will not start if a driver registers an alcohol blood level of more than the legal .05 percent.

Consider, Consult, and Carefully Implement

There are three C’s to focus on when considering rule changes. First, Consider the implications ahead of time. Don’t minimize potential reactions from staff. (You took away our three beers – thus we must strike.)

Consult with employees when appropriate to gauge their feelings about particular policies. If they value an existing way of doing things, are there ways for you to make changes that are (or appear to be) less disruptive?

Then Carefully implement the new policy. Sometimes you’re better off introducing a changed rule slowly, in steps. This gives people time to adjust instead of having knee-jerk reactions.

We can debate the wisdom of distributing beer at work another time (the only restriction at Carlsberg was "that you could not be drunk at work. It was up to each and everyone to be responsible," said Bekke). What matters is that you want your policy changes to be accepted while productivity flows like Carlsberg from a keg.