Rhode Island: Striking Alcohol Distributor Drivers Picket at Restaurants and Liquor Stores

By Vincent Cross

Delivery truck drivers for Johnson Brothers, an alcohol distributor based out of North Kingstown, Rhode Island have been on strike since May of this year to fight for higher pay, better working conditions and recognition of their vote to unionize from last year. The workers have tenaciously enforced and defended their strike, and in recent weeks have increased the strike’s visibility by picketing at businesses that are accepting deliveries from scab drivers hired by Johnson Brothers.

Rather than picket solely outside the Johnson Brothers facility, the striking drivers have been out almost every day at liquor stores and restaurants in Cranston, North Kingstown and other towns directly south of Providence, as well as Providence proper. In particular the drivers are picketing stores and restaurants that receive deliveries of Gallo Wine products, for which Johnson Brothers is the exclusive distributor in Rhode Island. During one of these actions, which workers refer to as “ambulatory pickets,” a scab driver went so far as to physically attack a truck driver from another company who was protesting in solidarity with the Johnson Brothers drivers.

This attack follows a pattern of physical harassment, from both police and scabs, that Tribune previously reported on in September.

Many of the drivers are veterans at the company, but finally walked out this past May after years of low pay and poor benefits. The delivery drivers at Johnson Brothers are some of lowest paid in the state, and currently only earn $15 per hour compared to the $25 an hour other Rhode Island alcohol distributors like Centrix and Mclaughlin pay.

Workers who spoke to Tribune said increasingly restrictive policies were implemented by Johnson Brothers prior to the strike to prevent workers from speaking to each other: “In the morning we used to punch in and drink our coffee together and talk, but we were told we weren’t allowed to form a group and talk to each other anymore.”

The owners’ restrictions came as a backlash to the drivers’ vote to unionize under Teamster Local 251 in September 2020. Johnson Brothers has refused to negotiate or recognize the union. Furthermore, the owners are currently attempting to decertify the union in order to deprive workers from any legal or financial protections the union provides them while they are on strike.

In retaliation against the striking workers for holding out so long, Johnson Brothers has delayed payment of unemployment benefits to the workers and is now claiming that the workers were only replaced in September, not in May when the strike began. This move, while clearly fraudulent, would deprive the striking workers of the back pay of the increased unemployment benefits that existed before the Biden administration cut them off this September. The drivers and Teamsters local representing them are currently appealing this claim.

In light of the wave of strikes and labor actions developing across the country, the striking drivers feel that their strike is just one small part of something larger. As one driver explained: “[The strikes] show us that working-class citizens are tired of being taken advantage of. We’re not the only ones and there are a whole bunch of us out there that want a better life […] and are willing to fight for it.”

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