Good Beer Hunting

Working Class Heroes — Anchor Brewing Employees Seek Rare Industry Result: Unionization

Photo by Clara Rice

Photo by Clara Rice

When Garrett Kelly approached his colleagues at Anchor Brewing Company to talk about the possibility of forming a union, he says it wasn't a hard sell.

"I would generally initiate the conversation by asking them if they plan on retiring at Anchor, which for most of Anchor's history had been the case," says Kelly, a brewer at the company. "It used to be a place where you could make a career, but now that's met with a dismissive chuckle."

In the past 18 months, Kelly and others tried to start that discussion at least 73 times, the number representing tour guides and a variety of production workers, from those in the lab to packaging and brewers. While he didn't share a specific figure for the number who have signed on figuratively in support or literally in a declaration letter, Kelly says he has a "majority" of production workers who support the unionization effort. Their goal is to increase opportunity for higher wages and better benefits, ranging from paid lunch time to additional sick days. News of the unionization effort was first reported by Splinter News.

“People have bought into the lie that if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life," Kelly says. "I think there’s this almost masochistic inclination that you see sometimes in restaurant kitchens as holding up the awfulness of a job as some sort of virtue."

"Doing difficult, technical, dangerous work for low pay isn’t something to celebrate, and I think there’s this very toxic mentality," he adds. "People are rapidly waking up to that.”

Anchor and Sapporo USA, which owns the California brewery, did not return a request for comment.

Kelly’s coworker, Brace Belden, told that he makes $16.50 an hour and is purposefully kept at 29 hours a week because Anchor would need to offer health care if he reached 30 hours or more. He told the outlet working at the brewery was “fun,” but also “backbreaking,” and is worried about his ability to pay rent.

At $18.35 an hour, Kelly makes about 40 cents less than what MIT's Living Wage Calculator recognizes as a suitable income for a single adult in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metropolitan area. The college estimates that $18.73 an hour amounts to a living wage In that area, a difference of about $700 a year from what Kelly takes in. Per MIT's assumption of typical expenses for one adult, that's about two-and-a-half months of groceries.

And so with the delivery of a letter to Anchor management declaring the intent for a group of employees to unionize, Kelly and his colleagues began a process that few in brewing have tried to pull off.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership has halved since 1983, the first year comparable data was available to today's figures. Back then, 20.1% of wage and salary workers in the U.S. were members of unions. At the end of 2018, it was 10.5%.

For the most part, unionized labor has stayed with the largest producers. Dozens of products sold by Anheuser-Busch InBev include involvement by union workforces, from Bud Light and Goose Island to Natty Light and Stella Artois. MillerCoors, with its history of union-busting efforts, also has unions as a part of a range of its brands, including imports like LaBatt's Blue and flagship Miller Lite.

But in terms of "craft," there’s not a lot. Lagunitas in Chicago and August Schell in Minnesota have unions, and along with Samuel Adams, they appear to be it. Five years ago, Pyramid Breweries/North American Breweries laid off 15 employees at a California brewery, which workers said was retaliation at their attempt to unionize. Employees at Boston Beer’s Cincinnati facility have been unionized since the company acquired the production space in 1997. Despite pay and benefits that can lag behind many other professions—as reported in this four-part series from 2018—there has been little public discussion among industry professionals about unionization.

Part of that can be the size of these companies. As documented by Good Beer Hunting last year, the number of full-time employees at breweries below 2,500 BBLs (which represents the majority of those companies in the U.S.) stays relatively low. On average, the Brewers Association found companies that size to have between five to 11 employees across production and non-production jobs, the latter representing anything from taproom staff to sales.

As has been more common, that leaves organized labor more for the largest businesses. In 2018, employees at Sam Adams’ Breinigsville, PA brewery explored the idea of following their colleagues in Ohio to unionize. They turned to  International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542, where organizer Ed Bates worked to help the effort.

It started in December 2017, when Bates says an employee called him to discuss the possibility of forming a union for brewers at the plant. The biggest complaints weren't about salary, but working conditions. Bates says that production was understaffed, leading to what amounted to forced overtime. Because workers would have to be paid extra for weekend work, that would leave one person to do the jobs of multiple people on Saturdays and Sundays. There was also a lack of paid time off, he says.

That phone call turned into talking with a few more staff. Bates would wait outside the brewery between shifts asking to chat with brewers getting off work.

"You can be on the public right-of-way at a traffic light where you can catch people," Bates said. "I'd meet with them and tell them my story and hand out my business card."

Bates says he had 39 pledge cards signed by brewers and 50 of 66 "on board" with organizing. Boston Beer hired Jackson Lewis P.C., a law firm with a reputation for union-busting. and went to court, arguing that any unionization efforts would need to include all employees at the plant, not just brewers. The National Labor Relations Board found in favor of the brewers, but in the six weeks from when legal proceedings started and an official vote was held, representatives from the firm and even Jim Koch himself showed up in person to turn the tide against the potential union, Bates says.

Boston Beer and Jackson Lewis declined to comment for this story.

In a vote in the first week of January, only 17 votes went for a union and the effort failed. Legally, Bates can't help organize another attempt until January 2020, so now he has to "hit the street," waiting at a gas station near the brewery or nearby, public spaces to try to drum up interest all over again.

“Most of the guys were very into the idea of a pension—they wanted a stronger voice, job security, and a retirement,” Bates says. As employees at Anchor prepare to enter a crucial weeks-long period, he adds that an important part of finding success is trying to keep the ideas and purpose behind unionizing front-of-mind. The time between setting a date for a final vote and the actual poll itself is a mental tug of war on both sides.

“One of our primary demands is to have Anchor not interfere, not threaten, or intimidate workers,” Garrett Kelly says of the effort at the California brewery. “At this point, it’s just a question of keeping up momentum and pressure.”

That immediately began last week after Kelly and others announced their intention to try and form a union. Around 75 volunteers from the brewery, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (Anchor would join its Local 6 chapter if unionized), and Democratic Socialists of America met Feb. 7 to canvas the area around San Francisco’s 24th Street BART station.

A petition was started asking anyone from around the world to sign it as a way to "stand in solidarity with workers at Anchor Brewing." It currently has about 1,100 signatures. The @AnchorUnion Twitter and Instagram accounts were also launched to keep the movement active on social media.

Should Sapporo leadership choose not to directly engage with Kelly and others, the case would be brought to the National Labor Relations Board, where a 4-6 week waiting period would lead up to a vote. Kelly says he and others remain “optimistic” they can get coworkers and the public on their side.

“People are pretty fed up,” Kelly says of fellow Anchor employees. “Everybody has seen their benefits shrinking and they’re moving further away from the city. It’s no secret this doesn’t take much convincing.”

Words by Bryan Roth