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Want to keep good paying jobs in London?

Drink bottled beer.

That’s the message the union at Labatt Breweries is sending as changes come to its London plant that signal the continued rise of the beer can at the expense of the bottle.

“The good jobs at the London brewery are definitely in a decline, there’s no question about it,” Jeff Robinson, president of SEIU branch local 1, said.

“Consumers consuming beer in bottles is good for the London economy. It’s good for good jobs, and it’s good for the environment. We desperately need this trend to turn around, that’s for sure.”

Labatt is shutting down one bottling line, but putting about $2 million into revamping the last remaining bottling line at its London plant, the brewer’s James Sanders said last week.

“That’s going to make it a lot nimbler and able to use a lot of different packaging sizes (for bottles). That is going to enable us to react to consumer demand much more easily.”

The problem is, consumer demand centres on beer in cans, not bottles.

“We are seeing a major shift in consumer demand from bottles to cans,” Sanders said.

The company tells union members demand for cans has been rising about 10 per cent a year in recent years, matched by the equivalent 10 per cent drop in demand for bottles, Robinson said.

Proof of that: London’s plant once had three bottling lines, which was reduced to two, he said.

The company told workers last week there’ll be only one bottling line now, boosted by a $2.1-million investment, Robinson said.

A small amount of work from that line will head to Montreal because the new line still won’t be able to handle the entire load of the two lines, Labatt said.

There won’t be any layoffs because of the move, the company added.

But there will be about 15 job vacancies from retirement and departures, that won’t be filled, Robinson said.

Labatt has a can line in London, but there are no plans to increase its capacity or add another line, the company said.

Even if it got another can line, there’d be fewer jobs coming with it than a bottling line.

About a third of the jobs at the London plant, peaking at about 300 in the summer, are involved in cleaning, sterilizing and inspecting returned bottles, Robinson said.

Despite the extra labour costs, it’s still less expensive for a brewery to bottle than can, he said.

“Cans are not good for jobs or the economy in London and they’re not good for the environment.”

Labatt has no choice but to respond to consumer demand, Sanders said.

But the company remains dedicated to keeping the London plant going, he said.

“Labatt has shown a keen willingness to invest in our hometown brewery, including over $20 million in the past couple of years alone, on new initiatives _ including the introduction of Prohibition Brew and ready-to-drink brands to address consumer tastes and preferences,” he said.