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Unionizing a Craft Brewery Shouldn’t Be This Hard

There’s an old saying in labor organizing: the companies that get unions are the companies that need them. It’s a simple, elegant formulation, but when it comes to the United States’ craft brewing industry, it hasn’t really held true. Despite the business’s many well-documented ills, soaring national pro-union sentiment, and Starbucks workers (among many others) proving that it’s possible to organize a service-industry business across separate shops and regions, the American craft brewing industry today remains basically as devoid of labor unions as it was at the start of the century.

There are a lot of political, social, and financial explanations for this curious fact that I’ve written about here and elsewhere, but the one I want to focus on today is the Occam’s razor of the bunch. Organizing anything — your apartment building, your neighborhood, your fellow subway riders — is hard work. Organizing a labor union in this country is even harder thanks to decades of targeted corporate and legislative assaults on workers’ rights at federal and state levels that have eroded protections and enforcements while stacking the deck in the bosses’ favor. Organizing a labor union at a craft brewery — where blurry, familial lines between management and staff are common, examples of organized shops are few, and workers are often told (and often tell themselves) that theirs are “dream jobs” — can feel almost preposterous. Which of course, makes it harder still.

Consider the case of the Brewing Union of Georgia. In mid-January, a majority of workers at Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens, Ga., formed this independent union in order to collectively bargain with the company over things like workplace conditions, staffing policies, and pay. Pro-union Creatures — what workers at the brewery call themselves — were also keen to hold Creature Comforts’ management to the company’s stated values, which often comes up in so-called “passion economy” industries like craft beer that attract workers and customers with a pitch that’s as much moral as it is financial. (“Accept less for this job because you get to make good beer with good people.” “Pay more for this good beer, because we’re locally owned and community-driven.” You get the idea.) As Katie Britton, a brand marketing manager at Creature Comforts who has helped organize the drive, told me a couple weeks after they and their colleagues went public with B.U.G.: “We’re not looking for an us-versus-them situation. This is really about making [conditions] better across the company.”

Britton and their fellow Creatures may not have been looking for an us-versus-them situation, but that’s more or less what they’ve gotten. In the 12-plus weeks since B.U.G. first requested voluntary recognition from Creature Comforts management, they say the company has engaged in a litany of common anti-union tactics, including disseminating alarmist messaging about unions, hiring an infamously aggressive anti-union law firm, and making coercive threats against pro-union workers. The company has also tried to carve out workers from B.U.G.’s proposed “bargaining unit,” arguing that those workers are actually supervisors and therefore ineligible for union representation.

That’s a common union-busting tactic, says Benjamin Anderson, Ph.D., who teaches communications and labor studies at Simon Fraser University and has written extensively about craft and service-sector organizing. Bosses who say this are often “trying to have their cake and eat it too, because they’re signaling ‘We want to support this,’ but in reality, they’re trying to carve off numbers” to diminish the size and power of any eventual union, according to Anderson. Still, the move is legal, as is declining to voluntarily recognize your workers’ union even though they’ve told you a majority of them want to bargain collectively with you. That’s what Creature Comforts has opted to do. Now, the two parties await a decision from the National Labor Relations Board on when it will hold a formal election for workers to vote yay or nay on B.U.G.

When it comes to union drives, time is a killer. “Time is huge, and employers know that, especially in a place like a brewery,” Anderson says. The transitory, “revolving-door” employment culture in American hospitality works in bosses’ favor when facing down a drive; whether it’s due to deliberate feet-dragging or outside forces, delays offer “an opportunity to naturally shed union supporters” who decide to just go get another job somewhere else. Unfortunately for B.U.G., the N.L.R.B. is notorious for taking a long time to set dates for the elections it facilitates (the intended result of decades of political meddling and underfunding.) “It’s been really tough just waiting and waiting,” Britton tells me in a recent phone interview. “We’ve all been prepared with the fact that delaying is a very common union-busting tactic, an opportunity that companies use to try to sow division in the meantime to prevent the election from succeeding.”

Creature Comforts declined to make Herron, who is also a cofounder, available for a phone interview. In response to emailed questions from Hop Take, he called B.U.G.’s allegation of union-busting “simply untrue,” insisting that the brewery’s “only response so far has been to ensure the bargaining unit is legally appropriate and does not include supervisors.”

At the beginning of April, roughly two and a half months after B.U.G. first went public and six weeks after the union and the company filed post-hearing briefs with the N.L.R.B., Creature Comforts suspended two vocally pro-union employees. One was dismissed during a shift and searched for weapons by Athens-Clarke County Police Department (A.C.C.P.D.) officers before being escorted off the property in front of their colleagues, according to Britton. That worker later received a “welfare check” from A.C.C.P.D. officers at their home at Creature Comforts’ request, and the company hired off-duty A.C.C.P.D. officers to maintain a uniformed presence at both its taproom and production facilities in Athens for at least three days last week. “The way that [bosses] are speaking about it is, ‘There are internal investigations, therefore we are employing police presence, but to the majority of the union members,” Britton says. “It mostly just feels like a scare tactic that they’re trying to employ in order to discourage union activity and union conversation.”

B.U.G. has filed an unfair labor practice (U.L.P.) charge with the N.L.R.B. over the suspensions, its fourth since the drive began, alleging the company violated the suspended workers’ rights by telling them not to speak with their coworkers. Pro-union workers also gathered at the Creature Comforts taproom this past weekend to distribute copies of a letter demanding the immediate reinstatement of the suspended members and an apology from Herron. “We’ve all got a lot of frustration and anger and disappointment in what we were hoping the company could be or would be,” Britton tells me. “Seeing this reaction [to the union drive] has been difficult.”

Through a representative, Herron denied the allegations laid out in the most recent U.L.P., and the other three. He declined to share specifics about the threats that the company claims to have received that precipitated the suspensions, investigations, and police presence, citing “respect for the employee’s [sic] involved.” He claimed that those actions, and the company-requested “welfare check” that B.U.G. considers an intimidation tactic, are “unrelated to the union.” Herron also alleged that the union, not the company, has been intimidating, lying, and “shaming coworkers who raise legitimate safety concerns. Britton denies that allegation, and Herron declined to provide details on that front.

If you’re exhausted by all this — the allegations and the counter-allegations, the unfamiliar acronyms and protracted timelines, the police — you’re starting to understand the low-grade, high-stakes agony of forming a labor union in these United States. It’s mind-numbing stuff! The process is rigged to wear you down! And that’s not even taking into account the emotional whiplash that employees in purportedly progressive, community-oriented industries like craft brewing encounter when they realize their bosses don’t want to make room for workers’ rights atop that lucrative, closely guarded moral high ground. (I should note here that Herron, in his email, denied that Creature Comforts’ posture toward its union betrayed the company’s values, which he listed as “practicing moderation, being kind, respecting people, caring about your legacy, trying to make things better.” He also argued these values were not “progressive” at all, but merely “good general rules for life.” You be the judge on that one, reader.) It’s enough to make workers throw up their hands and throw in the towel, which bosses and their lawyers and “union-avoidance consultants” count on.

Though Britton and their fellow pro-union workers are feeling “disappointment in what we were hoping the company could be or would be,” they say the company’s resistance has only strengthened B.U.G.’s resolve to win their election, whenever the N.L.R.B. finally sets a date for it. “Every time they ramp up their union-busting, they show their hand. Their fear that we’re going to win this election is just more of a reason that we need the union.”

Whether the old saying holds true at Creature Comforts remains to be seen, and you can be sure Hop Take will be watching closely. But the union’s struggles to force Herron & co. to bargain with them collectively over the company’s policies and pay scales illustrate a bigger tension at the core of the American craft brewing industry that demands close interrogation. Namely: If craft brewery owners cared about their communities, their workers, and their customers even half as much as they regularly claim, it wouldn’t be hard to unionize craft breweries. For all the well-documented ills of some prominent national labor organizations, at the shop level many unions are grassroots, small-d democratic, worker-led bodies — particularly independent ones like B.U.G. that aren’t affiliated with any national groups at all. They are small, local, and community-oriented by definition. They’re all the things craft breweries claim to stand for — unless, of course, that’s just marketing they’re hoping you’ll fall for.

? Hop-ocalypse Now

Well, this is grim: from the VinePair Metrics Desk comes word that this publication is seeing an uptick in traffic on old stories about Anheuser-Busch InBev lately, coinciding with the right-wing grievance machine’s concerted efforts to train conservatives’ blind rage at the macrobrewer over Bud Light’s social-media promotion with trans actor and influencer Dylan Mulvaney earlier this month. Of the 10 VinePair.com pages that have gained the most search traffic on a week-over-week basis, seven of them appear to be drawing traffic from transphobes trying to figure out which brands ABI owns so they can run them over with a steamroller, or whether Molson Coors and Constellation Brands are also “woke,” or whatever. This is a dismal reminder of how effectively Republican politicians, operatives, and centrist pundits have fanned the flames of vile anti-trans bigotry in this country.

? Ups…

With the help of the Milwaukee Brewers (of course), Major League Baseball is piloting an extension of beer sales to offset any drinking time lost to its new pitch clock… Beer tax-paids were up about 5 percent in February, love to see it folks… Atrevida Beer Co., inundated with merch orders after its co-founder helped disarm an active shooter in Colorado Springs last year, has a new merch partner… The not-beloved private-equity rollup group that re-killed MEL Magazine sold beloved food & bev magazine Saveur to Kat Craddock, the latter mag’s longtime editor…

? …and downs

Heineken USA is going to halt draft sales of every core beer brand (but not Lagunitas) for a year in five states, bold strategy, Cotton… Kroger workers are suing the grocery giant for wage theft dating back six months… Iconic Jamaican beer brand Red Stripe is skipping the flavored malt beverage stage and going straight for spirits-based canned cocktails

The article Unionizing a Craft Brewery Shouldn’t Be This Hard appeared first on VinePair.

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