Monday, July 29, 1996
Miller workers bottle up beer, but not pride

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Is that him?

Is that him?

The forklift operator kept repeating that question as he pointed his fork at me.

He had a peculiar gleam in his eye.

I couldn't tell if he was a man in love with his work or just happy to have me in his sights.

I assumed the worst. Tomorrow's headline - buried under a story about the soaring mold count - would read: ''Columnist harpooned by unhappy reader.''

Then they would dump my boney body in a vat of beer, and I would never be heard from again. Unless, of course, a tell-tale part of me turned up in a can of Oktoberfest Miller Lite.

The forklift operator, Maurice Bradley, was riding the warehouse floor of Miller's Trenton plant. I was there on a dare.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a column wishing the beer commemorating Cincinnati's Oktoberfest could be brewed in Cincinnati. A Queen City brew for a Queen City tradition. While Miller is a wonderful civic partner for sponsoring so many big events in Cincinnati, I said I just like the local beer feeling.

The column caused some of the 530 employees at the 35-acre plant to question my sanity as well as my sense of geography. Trenton, they wrote and called into my voice mail, is local. The brewery is local. See for yourself. Come on out. Or, as one worker put it: ''Go ahead, just show your ugly face around here. I dare you.''

Canned in Trenton

Unable to refuse such a cordial invitation, I dusted off my passport and left Cincinnati's city limits for a tour of the plant. Forty-one miles and 52 minutes later, I was in the land of Miller time.

My guide was Steve Olszewski, a manufacturing engineer at the plant. He had just finished showing off the canning operation: 1,900 cans of beer a minute whiz by on a conveyor belt. Twin tails of can lids snake down a long trough of spotless stainless steel.

The cans are filled with beer, capped, cleaned, stamped with a freshness date and pasteurized in a blink. The canning machine even had a contraption to blow off the foam. I had two uncles who did that at family picnics.

As I left the canning area, the forklift swung into view.

Maurice didn't spear me. Instead, he pulled alongside and gave me a verbal jab.

''Your article upset me very much,'' he said. ''I live in North Avondale. I pay taxes in Cincinnati. To a lot of us, this is a hometown brewery. It's like family.

''This is a nice place to work.''

That's why I came to Trenton and wanted to tour this plant. As I read the letters and listened to the phone messages from Miller employees, I was struck by their company loyalty.

This is the age of dissatisfaction. Nowadays, nobody's supposed to defend the place where they pick up a paycheck.

Not so at Miller's Trenton brewery.

Team pride

Red Greene hosed down the conveyor belt that carried the run of Oktoberfest cans.

''Ninety-nine per cent of all workers in America care about their jobs,'' he said between squirts. ''Most management doesn't cotton to letting them have their say. They do here. We have a team concept where everyone works together and is treated like an adult.''

In the warehouse, Cindy Ray - hard hat tucked under her arm - can't get over ''hourly workers having a say. And people listening. Where I used to work, you were told what to do and when to do it. You knew nothing. Here, if something's wrong on the line, I can shut it down.''

If something goes right, everybody can shout it up. Judi Stringer makes sure bottles are filled with beer. On July 10, when her shift was about to set the company record for most cases of beer bottled in a 24-hour period (61,851), she called her boss at home - it was 5 a.m. - and told him to hurry back to work.

''When we broke that record,'' she shouted over the clinking din of brown bottles being filled with a foamy liquid, ''everybody was hugging and cheering.''

The more stories the workers told me, the more I appreciated their dedication. What I heard sounded a lot like hometown pride.

And it made me proud they were part of my hometown.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.