A dark cloud hangs over the black stuff as Guinness employees today start voting on industrial action, which could include an all-out strike at Dublin's St James's Gate brewery for the first time in its 250-year history.
The Guinness Staff Union (GSU) yesterday confirmed that it will ballot members on industrial action in a dispute about redundancy terms.
The GSU is the largest trade union at the company, and represents 800 staff in Dublin, Kilkenny, Waterford and Dundalk. A spokesman said union members were angry at the revision of redundancy terms and that the company had refused to enter into negotiations on the changes.
"There have been significant reductions which impact differently on different individuals," according to Sean Mackell.
Overall, the changes hit senior workers harder than young employees, he added.
Mr Mackell stressed that the benefits were "very marginal for younger folk and quite significant for older folk". A recent ballot of GSU members resoundingly rejected the revised redundancy terms by 98pc to two per cent.
The balloting process, which begins today, is expected to take about three weeks and the GSU executive will then meet to consider members' response and decide what action to take, Mr Mackell said.
A spokeswoman for Diageo, owner of Guinness, last night confirmed that "severance terms were revised and a new set of terms came into effect as of the beginning of 2008". She said the company was unaware of plans to ballot for industrial action.
"Diageo has a long tradition of very favourable terms and conditions for all its employees. The revised terms have been benchmarked across leading businesses in Ireland and have been shown to be fair and equitable," she added.
Fears have been expressed that a reorganisation of the company could see the closure of some of all of its Kilkenny, Waterford and Dundalk breweries, whose products include Budweiser, Carlsberg, Smithwicks and Harp.
Mr Mackell said reports that up to 300 jobs could go were "speculation" and "a worst case scenario", adding that no one could predict how many redundancies, if any, were planned until the company produced its brewery investment assessment, which is due at the end of May.
He stressed that Guinness is 250 years old and that staff had never resorted to industrial action before. He said, however, that there was "no other option" when "the company imposes significant changes and refuses to negotiate".
Diageo's spokeswoman said Guinness's investment assessment process was a completely separate issue to the revised redundancy terms.
An all-out strike at St James's Gate would be devastating for Guinness production. The historic brewery operates at close to maximum capacity all year, supplying the black stuff to Ireland, Britain, North America and beyond.
Guinness sales are up six per cent in Ireland and 15pc worldwide. Last month, Diageo reported half-yearly profits of almost €1.8bn.