Budweiser drinkers might need to get to the stores early if they plan to have their favorite cold one on hand for a Fourth of July barbecue.

Budweiser drinkers might need to get to the stores early if they plan to have their favorite cold one on hand for a Fourth of July barbecue.

Every union member of Budweiser distributor Western Beverage Co.'s 50-man driving fleet in Medford joined a statewide strike on Tuesday morning. Drivers are picketing in front of the distribution site at 610 Mason Way and have been seen at other local Budweiser retailers, including the 7-Eleven convenience store on the corner of McAndrews Road and Crater Lake Avenue.

Union drivers in Eugene and Salem also are taking part in the strike.

Managers with commercial driver's licenses will try to meet delivery commitments while the drivers are on strike.

According to Dan Ratty, the secretary/treasurer of the Medford Teamsters chapter, the drivers are upset about a new 401(k) retirement plan being proposed by the company as well as a change in health benefits.

"This is a multimillion-dollar company and they're trying to shortchange people and it's not right," Ratty said.

Some local grocery store managers said they believed the strike would end quickly and wouldn't affect future sales. Mike Hammers, one of the managers at Food 4 Less, was not as optimistic.

"We didn't get our normal service today," Hammers said. "We're hoping they get this matter figured out so we can have it (Budweiser) on our shelf for the Fourth. It's one of our top-selling brands."

The most recent compensation package offered to the unionized workers would shift health benefits from the Teamster plan to the company's PacificSource health policy, which would save Western Beverage 48 cents per hour of employee time worked. That money would be added to the employees' hourly wage to make up the difference.

Retirement benefits would be shifted from a Teamster pension plan to a 401(k) that nonunionized Western Beverage employees have had since 1991. Under the Teamster pension, retirement benefits are equal for all hires; under the new plan, employees must work up to full benefits.

Independent benefit firm DPA Inc. was hired by the company to do a comparison of the two retirement plans.

In a letter to union employees, Western Beverage said that DPA found that "most employees are expected to receive more money under the 401(k) plan than under the Teamsters' pension plan."

Western Beverage has been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with its union since December, with the hope of avoiding a work stoppage. On Monday, the union turned down the company's most recent proposal and started the strike late that night.

Western Beverage Executive Vice President Jack Willis said the drivers chose one of the company's busiest times of the year to go forward with the strike.

Willis, 62, started loading trucks for the company in 1974 and had to help out on the loading dock again on Tuesday for the first time in more than 10 years.

"It's a tough time," Willis said. "I anticipate working all weekend so that we can make all of our deliveries."

The strike came as a surprise to Willis, who said that his company's employees receive up to $3 more per hour — across all positions — than other distributors such as Gold River and Columbia.

"Any time there is a work stoppage we want employees to get back to work as quickly as possible," Willis said. "It's in the best interest of the company, the employees and their families. We're not ashamed of the offer we put out there at all."

Ratty said the Teamsters made a calculated move to start the strike during the peak of business.

"We're going out at the beginning of their busiest season," Ratty said. "And we plan to stay out until they do the right thing."

Dennis Fiedler, Western Beverage's general sales manager, said he's not sure when the strike will end.

"The membership of our union voted down our third, best, and final offer," Fiedler said.

One of the employees on the picket line is Phil Morton, who has worked for Western Beverage for the past 28 years. Up until Tuesday, Morton said, he had never missed a day of work.

"Not for sickness, injury, or anything," Morton said.

Michael Armitage of Ashland, who is also taking part in the strike, has worked for the company for 11 years.

"We're not going to get rich doing this job," Armitage said. "We do this job to take care of our families, and health benefits and our retirement package play a big part in that."

Ratty said he understands that Western Beverage offers greater compensation than other distribution companies, but maintained that the company should because it's more profitable.

"They're the King of Beers," Ratty said. "They have the best and hardest working employees and they should be paid like it."

Reach intern Bob Albrecht at 776-8791 or e-mail intern1@mailtribune.com.