Benjamin Rendernick, a registered veterinary technician who has worked at the VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists for nine years, knows the rising cost of living all too well. Last April, he and his coworkers voted to unionize with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) as the West Coast Pet Care Workers, after citing raise freezes, a lack of promotions, outdated equipment, understaffing, and inadequate healthcare plans at the VCA.
“We [are] not getting paid competitive wages at all,” says Rendernick. “It’s very common for most veterinary nurses [that they] can’t stay in the field because they can’t afford to continue doing this work, especially as we get older. I’m getting paid a poverty wage in the Bay Area.”
Mars Incorporated, the confection company that produces Mars Bars and M&M’s, bought VCA Inc., the chain that owns VCA Hospitals, in 2017 for $9.1 billion, according to the VCA website. Unbeknown to most people, the notoriously secretive and privately held Mars includes several healthcare and drug companies under its corporate umbrella.
Across town, workers at Anchor Brewing Company also launched efforts Feb. 7 to unionize with the ILWU, citing stagnant or decreasing wages and the rolling back of benefits.
“In the last five years or so, the market was really struggling for us and other similarly sized breweries,” says Garrett Kelly, a fermentation worker at Anchor who has been there for almost four years. “So, the first thing they’re going to cut is labor every time. Our starting wages are lower than they were five years ago.”
Like VCA, Anchor Brewing was also bought by a large corporation: Sapporo Brewing purchased it in 2017. The company who owned Anchor before Sapporo halved workers’ paid sick leave hours and even reduced the length of lunch breaks, a practice which hasn’t yet been remedied.
San Francisco’s legacy as a union town has once again come to the fore as Anchor Union and the VCA workers run public campaigns to draw attention to workers’ demands. On Feb. 20, Anchor Union workers, members of the San Francisco chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, District 5 candidate Dean Preston, organizers from ILWU, and other supporters picketed outside the VCA hospital at 600 Alabama St., chanting while a three-man band played. A regional management meeting took place inside to discuss the workers’ concerns with the regional director and VCA representative, Tim Reid. It was held behind closed doors despite the workers’ request for an all-staff meeting, which is supposed to be mandatory once every quarter — although according to Rendernick, there hasn’t been one for over a year.
Anchor Union has also launched a highly public campaign to garner support from bars and restaurants in the city that serve Anchor Steam beer, with help from both the DSA and the ILWU. Supporters like District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton and District 5 candidate Dean Preston proudly wear stickers with the Anchor insignia and post on social media with the hashtag #AnchoredInSF.
The impetus for both groups approaching the ILWU for mentorship was their policy of granting its workplace members “a lot of autonomy,” says Kelly, and “its general history as a very radical and just effective organized labor body.” The ILWU’s roots in the Bay Area stretch back to the 1934 West Coast General Strike, when four dockworkers were killed after employees protested abysmal working conditions and labor rights violations. Since then, the ILWU has engaged in other high-profile actions like the 2008 May Day protest, in which thousands of workers walked off the job to protest the U.S.’s involvement in the Iraq War, earning them a reputation as a highly regarded and militant union whose workers are well-compensated for their labor.
However, despite the brave faces that both companies’ workers have put on, it’s an uphill battle to win the demands. While Anchor publicly pledged to remain neutral and not interfere with union organizers, executives have retained a notorious anti-union law firm and have plans to hold captive-audience meetings this week with employees to “educate them” on the consequences of unionizing, according to one worker SF Weekly spoke to.
“They’re telling us the classic union-busting lie that in order to negotiate with management, we have to give something up,” said the worker, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from management. “What they aren’t mentioning to the workers, what they’re trying to trick us with, is that they already get something from us. They get the beer we make. So, they already get something from us, and all we get in return is meager wages.”
VCA also retained the same union-busting law firm — Jackson & Lewis — but suddenly switched legal teams at the last moment before VCA workers were to begin contract negotiations.
“They only agreed to meet with us once a month for bargaining. Then we had to start over and explain to this new guy everything, like catch him up to speed,” Rendernick says. “They’re really trying to scare people and make people think they’re gonna close the hospital or get people to quit. They’re not definitely trying to hire people on either. VCA is blaming our inability to hire people on the union.” VCA representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Anchor and VCA executives have also demonized the ILWU as a malevolent third party, according to Evan McLaughlin, an IFPTE Local 21 organizer and a member of DSA’s Labor Organizing Committee.
They’re “claiming that they don’t want the union interfering in management’s relationship with the workers,” says McLaughlin. “They prefer to deal with workers in individual, isolated settings, where the power dynamic is shifted in their favor rather than the worker.”
Brace Belden, a racking room worker at Anchor who is a member of the union’s organizing committee, reports that Anchor has claimed the ILWU is looking out for its own interests and not the workers.
“They’re claiming that the union is gonna get fat off of our dues, which is not true. The union is us,” Belden says. “It’s supposed to be a San Francisco company, but they’re using tactics straight out of the Walmart union-busting playbook. … We want to be working. We don’t want to be involved in a conflict. We hope that they will come to the same realization, [that] it’s better to work than to fight with us.”
While Sapporo and Mars continue to try and wear down their efforts, the employees of both Anchor and VCA remain steadfast. Anchor workers are set to elect union representatives on March 6.
“We’re really excited,” says Kelly. “I think this is a really special moment for labor. … I really think there’s something happening and I think the working class of America is starting to wake back up from its long nap.”