While Twin Cities brewery Surly lays off workers to bust the union effort there, the Cities’ Fair State Brewery in fact acts fairly:
“Today, Fair State Brewing Cooperative has decided to voluntarily recognize the union formed by their employees under the local Unite 17 chapter. This makes them among the first craft breweries in the country to accept a union. Anchor Steam, largely considered to be America’s first craft brewery, unionized by vote in March of 2019 (they were bought by Japan’s Sopporo Breweries in 2017). But beyond that there hasn’t been much movement towards organizing in craft beer.
Of course, a pandemic changes everything and union talk is bubbling in town. First, Tattersall Distilling successfully voted in a union, and now Spyhouse Coffee is on track to call for a vote. Both cited a need for staff safety during the pandemic as demands. Just this week the Stilheart/Lawless Distilleries organized. And of course, last week we saw the Surly Brewing taproom and restaurant workers seeking collaborative organization, only to have the company announce closure of that side of the business. Given Surly’s past legal issues with employee wages, I can’t say I was surprised that employees jumped on the union train.
But. Fair State is kind of known in the industry to be a pretty chill and progressive place. Their taproom employees already make around $17/hr, they qualify for benefits with 32 hours a week, they have parental leave programs and offer assistance to employees in other areas. It seems like there’s no beef. Knowing that it’s the employees who pay for a union through monthly dues, why would they bring someone in to represent them when it seems like the workplace is already working in their favor?
I talked to Anna Schmitz, a Fair State community manager and one of the employees who has helped organize the union. She acknowledged that they have a great relationship with the owner Evan Sallee, and in fact there already was an employee council in the company, but she sees unionizing as a benefit in two ways. “During contract negotiations, anyone who wants to be directly involved in the process gets to be there. Not just the union rep, but anyone who has something to say. It’s creating that process. And it give us legal protections, in negotiating it gives us power.”
I wondered about how much power there is during these pinched economic times. “First of all, we don’t want them to go under, we have always kept that in mind as a cornerstone of this plan. We’re actually not asking for more money or more benefits right now, we just want to get them locked in,” Schimtz told me. “We’re actually looking for smaller, no-cost ways to improve the company as a whole, like creating an employee handbook and hiring more diversity. There’s a lot of HR structures that we are looking for.”
This is a good explainer too about unions, asking and then answering the questions people have. Unions aren’t just about money. They aren’t about antagonism. They are about workers having power. Workers don’t want to drive their employers out of business. They want jobs! And they want those jobs to be fair. Sadly, too many employers don’t recognize this.
In any case, I know which brewery I will be visiting and not visiting next time I am in the Twin Cities.