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OpinionColumnistsRandi Marshall

Beer delivery strike reflects our time

What’s happening at Clare Rose is emblematic of a monumental economic shift, due in part to aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis, but also to changing customer needs, an increasing focus on automation and online sales, and attempts to do more with less.

A passing motorist responds to striking employees of

A passing motorist responds to striking employees of beer distributor Clare Rose earlier this month. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

For Brian Garrone of Long Beach, selling and delivering beer for Clare Rose wasn’t an easy job. He’d arrive at 6 a.m., often loading his truck with more than 600 cases. He’d make about 15 stops, often working 12 or 13 hours a day. But after a decade, with good pay and good benefits, Garrone, 37, was sticking with it.

In the past, the week leading up to the Fourth of July was grueling, as Garrone handled more than 4,000 cases. But this year, he’s on strike, primarily concerned that Clare Rose wants to stop contributing to his pension and move to a 401(k) retirement plan. “My whole thing is, if you work hard at something your whole life, you should be able to retire. And that is something this company is trying to take away,” Garrone said outside Clare Rose’s Melville offices, where he and others are walking a picket line.

Here’s the thing. Clare Rose chief executive Sean Rose doesn’t disagree with Garrone. Of course, his employees should be able to retire with security, he says. But he thinks the pension plan isn’t viable, that it won’t sustain itself, and that the company can’t keep going with what he calls an “unknown liability.”

Clare Rose, which distributes about 10 million cases of beer annually across Long Island, isn’t alone. Only about 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer traditional pension plans to new employees nowadays, with the vast majority moving to 401(k)s. But union officials representing more than 100 Clare Rose drivers and warehouse workers say the pension is doing well. It’s nonnegotiable, they say.

Rose, for one, agrees with the last part. It’s nonnegotiable.

And thus, an impasse.

This push and pull between employee and employer isn’t new. Indeed, what’s happening at Clare Rose is emblematic of a monumental economic shift, due in part to aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis, but also to changing customer needs, an increasing focus on automation and online sales, and attempts to do more with less.

Besides the pension, Rose wants to change the combined driver-salesmen job dozens of workers like Garrone have held. Rose hopes to split the sales work from the driving and use technology more. But union officials expect that will mean pay cuts for the drivers — another deal-breaker. The average driver, according to the company, earns $70,000 annually.

So, the strike wears on into its 10th week. And as Long Island business owners and workers watch, it’s clear the three-generation story of Clare Rose has lessons for all of us.

It is, after all, a different company from the one Sean Rose’s grandfather, Clare, or his father, Mark, led. It used to be smaller, more familial. Workers remember a time when they felt cared for, when Clare or Mark took employees on vacations, while still funding pensions and increasing pay.

But companies grow and times change. Other business owners recognize Rose’s battle, as they too navigate choppy economic waters, constantly changing technology, higher costs and workers’ shifting needs. Sean Rose is a public, oft-vilified face for what many employers are dealing with.

Meanwhile, Long Islanders, many of whom are raising families in an expensive area, honk as they drive by the strikers, supporting those who are fighting for what they also want — job stability, retirement security, steady pay. Despite a strong local job market, and good national economic data, they fear for their own economic futures, too.

There’s no magic pill to satisfy everyone. There’s no return to the glory days when workers were comfortable and executives provided perks. Yet, without stable pay and benefits, Long Island workers will find it harder to stay here. The implications are enormous.

For Clare Rose and its workers, change will come, but it won’t be easy or painless. But it’s critical to the region’s future. We’re all watching.

Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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