Does the Brewery Unionization Movement Have Legs?

Hold my (craft) beer: Anchor Brewing’s successful vote may have inspired a few more craft breweries to follow suit.

When Anchor Brewing employees first went public with their unionization effort in February, they were confident they could inspire other craft breweries as they have in the past. That also meant the year-long campaign had high stakes — not just for the Anchor workers priced out of the city, but for undercompensated craft brewers nationwide.

More than 23 percent of the United States beer industry’s revenue in 2017 came from craft beers, according to the Brewer’s Association. But as the number of such jobs in California nearly tripled between 2006 and 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that average weekly wages decreased 25 percent. For Anchor employees like Garrett Kelly, that meant less paid lunch, sick-time maximums slashed in half, reduced starting pay, and no more company matches of income put toward 401(k) — all over the past three years.

“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, which helped with the union effort. “We believe this is one of the first major attempts to unionize the workforce of a craft brewery, and hope it could lead to more unionization across the industry.”

Some Anchor employees spent nearly a year gathering coworkers to form a union and push back against the trend. On March 13, Anchor employees voted 31-16 to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in the first known unionization among craft brewers.

It didn’t come easy. Employees reported efforts by management to discourage the vote with meetings and, after being told they couldn’t wear pro-union buttons on work uniforms, filed a complaint with the National Labor Review Board.

Still, it was well worth the effort.

“I think the whole craft brew industry is really primed for what we’re doing right now,” Kelly says. “We’ve already seen an uptick in interest.”

Because the nature of forming a union means keeping things quiet until enough interest gathers to formally file intent to do so, it’s not yet publicly known which other craft brewery workers are talking it through. But Kelly says representatives from a couple in the Bay Area, one on the East Coast, and one in the Midwest have reached out to them for advice.

From Anchor’s experience, Kelly encourages interested workers to reach out to local unions that make sense for their area and line of work or groups like the San Francisco DSA, who he said was instrumental in the campaign. Labor Notes, a network for the labor movement, holds workshops nationwide and produces a magazine and pamphlets for those unsure of how to proceed and for union leaders looking to hone their skills.

Kelly says talking about struggles in a tangible way was effective for the Anchor campaign as well. Elaborating upon the need for higher pay with concrete details, like the inability to buy diapers for their children, helped them figure out what was affecting workers and what they needed to change brought more on board.

He also advises bringing in people who are experienced with labor organization rather than running on adrenaline — reassurance from the pros to protect your coworkers from potential repercussions is invaluable. And while Kelly doesn’t think there’s any bad time or way to work on a unionization effort, he says keeping management in the dark until a formal declaration is imperative.

“Forewarned is forearmed,” Kelly says. “You want to have as much unity and as much of a head start as possible.”

With a union-made Anchor Steam in hand, craft-brew workers around the country can toast to that.

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