What Does It Mean When a Brewery Unionizes?
After a tumultuous couple of years, craft beer employees are looking out for themselves.
“We are America’s first unionized microbrewery.” Fair State Brewing Cooperative posted that headline on its site in the days after Labor Day 2020. The brewery voluntarily recognized the union quickly.
“It was a pretty great feeling,” says Fair State warehouse specialist Anders Bloomquist, “to not just finally make the announcement, but to know that there was this overwhelming support.”
For many decades, the general perception of labor unions in America was limited to the idea of certain trades. But now employees in a variety of industries—from media companies (including this one) to fast food chains to now craft breweries—are forming coalitions to achieve better wages, attain superior benefits, and improve overall working conditions.
The time is ripe for the craft beer industry, which has had a tumultuous couple of years. The COVID-19 pandemic, industry-wide sexual assault allegations, and the sale of big breweries like Bell’s Brewery and CANarchy have grabbed the attention of anyone keeping tabs on craft beer. The pandemic also created a reassessment of labor conditions at some breweries. There was unionization interest at Goose Island, Surly Brewing, and Great Lakes Brewing. Anchor Brewing is now unionized. So are smaller breweries like Fair State and Headless Mumby, as well as a few distilleries in the Twin Cities.
Some breweries have pushed back against unionization efforts. Others have embraced it by immediately recognizing the union, having leadership bring the idea to the table, or finding other unique approaches to give workers a say.
“Especially in a tightened labor force, anything you can offer is a leg up,” says Alex Maffeo, CEO and co-founder of Headless Mumby. “You can work here and retire with dignity. You know what I mean?”
Why are breweries unionizing?
The reasons for unionization vary from place to place. “Usually people kind of associate organizing a union with there being something horribly wrong. Just as often, it’s important to do so because things are not horrible,” Bloomquist says. “If you name every good thing about your job, the second thing you should ask is, ‘Well, who has the power to take it away or make a substantial change?’ For most folks, it's kind of like, ‘Well, if the really nice person in charge gets replaced with somebody not so nice, a lot of the good stuff could go away.’”
Other union drives weren't necessarily so amicable. “The craft brewing industry has essentially no union labor and is rife with exploitation disguised by the industry’s ‘hip’ profile,” wrote a branch of the Democratic Socialists of America wrote, which is helping Anchor Brewing workers with their organizing effort.
No matter the reasons, it takes time to come out the other side with a new contract. When efforts are publicly announced, the workers have often been discussing the possibility for months if not years.
“We’re able to offer our employees benefits that we couldn’t as a small operation,” Maffeo says. “Right now, I’m up to eight employees. What that allowed us to do too is not only could I step back from my day job and just be dispatched here and keep all my benefits, but now we can give everyone a 401k.”
“If you name every good thing about your job, the second thing you should ask is, ‘Well, who has the power to take it away or make a substantial change?’”
Bloomquist notes that the team he works with discussed how this kind of organizing can benefit other workers in the industry, even if they aren’t part of an organized workplace.
“That was something that I said to a lot of my coworkers throughout this process. If every single place doesn’t become a union in one year, us setting a higher standard does help the entire industry within a geographic area,” he says. “There have been all sorts of studies done over the years showing that if union density in one part of an industry is high enough that then even the non-union parts of the industry benefit, because why would anybody want to work at that place if they can get a job at someplace that's got either better pay and better benefits or more long term reliable pay and long term reliable benefits?”
Other breweries are employee-owned
Lots of big name breweries around the the country, including Harpoon and New Belgium, are already employee-owned—allowed staff to purchase shares and stocks in the company.
Ironically enough, Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore, which is named after a street, is not going the full unionizing route just yet and instead just recently shifted to an employee-owned model. (It should be noted that a former Union employee faced allegations of sexual harassment and was removed from brewery operations in 2020.)
“For us, [an employee-owned model] wasn’t something that was new in our heads,” says Union co-founder Adam Benesch. “We’ve long thought that the long-term plan for this was to put ownership into our employees' hands.
It’s another avenue that has earned the support of workers and community, according to Benesch. The first round of ownership grands at Union was given to a six-person cohort and, going forward, ownership grants will be given to any employee upon their fifth anniversary at the company.
“Every time we've thought about this and planned around this it was, if we’re set to retire in 10 or 20 years or whatever the case may be, or no longer able to work, we don’t want to have to sell this to someone else and then it takes on another form of its own,” Benesch says. “We want to pass it on to the people that contributed and, frankly, led the growth that allowed us to continue on and be a bigger and better brewery all along.”
Why should you, dear drinker, give a damn?
It can be tough to point to a specific thing you might notice when you put that union-made lager to your lips.
People in the industry have said they believe the workers care more, feel more invested in their work. (Though, most brewers aren’t sitting in a warehouse trying to make bad beer.) At a minimum, there’s a strong case that those spaces are seen as a desirable place to work, a place that will get and keep top talent.
“I don’t know that become an employee-owner makes them make beer even better, but I think it makes them care about all aspects of the business even more and a little bit more proud about what they're doing,” Benesch says.
While it’s about the workers in these breweries more than the drinkers, these efforts have brought in the support of people in the community. Headless Mumby has even made an effort to reward that kind of support from the community. Maffeos says that the brewery has perks for union members, and members of unions—including teachers, firefighters, and construction workers—frequent the brewery.
As Maffeos puts it: “It’s just common working people kind of supporting each other.”