Anchor Workers Are Organizing to Become One of the First Unionized Craft Breweries in the U.S.

Alex Press February 8, 2019

Beer is better when it's union made. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After tak­ing their union dri­ve pub­lic on Thurs­day, work­ers from Anchor Brew­ing Com­pa­ny, a San Fran­cis­co insti­tu­tion that was found­ed in 1896 and stands as one of the country’s old­est craft brew­eries, ral­lied in the Mis­sion Dis­trict. The work­ers esti­mate 75 peo­ple showed up to sup­port their union, orga­nized with the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore­men and Ware­house Union (ILWU). Should the work­ers’ union dri­ve suc­ceed, theirs would be among the first union­ized craft brew­eries in the Unit­ed States.

We were the first craft brew­ery,” said Gar­rett Kel­ly, a full-time fer­men­ta­tion work­er at Anchor who has been with the com­pa­ny for three years. He stressed that his love for being a part of Anchor is part of the moti­va­tion for union­iz­ing. We’ve led the way for decades, so it makes sense for us to lead the way in this new chapter.”

After gath­er­ing in the Mis­sion for a few speech­es, the crowd dis­persed into small groups to coat the neighborhood’s bars, restau­rants and liquor stores with signs in sup­port of the Anchor union.

My group went to eight places and we did­n’t get a sin­gle neg­a­tive reac­tion,” said Kel­ly. Peo­ple were giv­ing us free beer, free food; they were just real­ly excit­ed to sup­port us.”

We drew up a turf map of every place that sells Anchor, then we went out and talked to peo­ple at every one,” said Brace Belden, a part-time Anchor work­er and mem­ber of the union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee. The first bar we went to had all these old Anchor Steam signs and I thought Man, this guy might be weird,’ but his response was to say what we were doing was amaz­ing and to ask for eight of our signs.”

Belden, like many of his cowork­ers, is kept at 29-hour work­weeks — Anchor would be legal­ly required to pro­vide health­care to any­one work­ing 30 hours or more. He makes $16.50 an hour, which he points out is far below what’s con­sid­ered a liv­ing wage in San Fran­cis­co. My rent is about to go up to $1,100,” he added. I make shit [mon­ey].” He described his work as fun but back­break­ing,” adding that hear­ing loss is a par­tic­u­lar con­cern among his coworkers.

These con­cerns are what led the approx­i­mate­ly 70-per­son bar­gain­ing unit to unionize.

Work­ing at Anchor brew­ing com­pa­ny used to be one of the best jobs in San Fran­cis­co; you could make a career and raise a fam­i­ly with what used to be a full-time fac­to­ry job with great ben­e­fits” said Kel­ly. But that’s no longer the case. There’s been a steady and sys­tem­at­ic roll­back of our wages, our ben­e­fits and our qual­i­ty of life.”

Jon Ezell, a full-time bot­tle-shop work­er who has been with Anchor for almost two years, told me he some­times spends two hours com­mut­ing home from the company’s Potrero Hill facil­i­ty, a reflec­tion of the Bay Area’s bal­loon­ing hous­ing cri­sis, which is itself a prod­uct of the area’s immense class divide. That’s the crush­ing fact of life in the Bay Area,” Ezell said. And it’s time away from my kids… We have three kids. If I want­ed to live in the city, the cheap­est two-bed­room apart­ment near my work is over $4,000 a month.” 

Five mem­bers of the union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee deliv­ered a let­ter announc­ing their union­iza­tion to man­age­ment at the facil­i­ty on Thurs­day. They describe the imme­di­ate response as extreme­ly neg­a­tive and pet­ty.” After being shunt­ed into a small con­fer­ence room and told the CEO would not have time to speak with them, the work­ers said they were asked if they were still on the clock. Who clocks out to go to a meet­ing?” Kel­ly recount­ed. Should Anchor refuse to vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize the union with­in 48 hours, work­ers say they will file for a Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board vote imme­di­ate­ly.” They are urg­ing the com­pa­ny to remain neu­tral through­out that process.

The union dri­ve began a year ago, not long after beer con­glom­er­ate Sapporo’s 2017 acqui­si­tion of Anchor. Though it’s unclear how the acqui­si­tion will affect work­ing con­di­tions at the brew­ery — and it’s worth not­ing that one Cana­di­an sub­sidiary of the com­pa­ny is union­ized and went on strike as recent­ly as 2017 — work­ers describe recent changes, such as the reduc­tion of a 45-minute paid lunch, as con­cern­ing. If you work at a craft brew­ery, you get a shift beer,” said Belden. But they took that away recent­ly too.”

While craft brew­eries are by def­i­n­i­tion small com­pa­nies, the country’s 7,000 craft brew­eries rep­re­sent a grow­ing pro­por­tion of the U.S. beer mar­ket: 23 per­cent in 2017, accord­ing to the Brew­ers Asso­ci­a­tion. As was not­ed in an SF Week­ly sto­ry on the union­iza­tion dri­ve, that amounts to $26 bil­lion in sales. But despite gen­er­at­ing such prof­its, craft brew­ery work­ers’ wages declined by 25 per­cent from 2006 to 2016, accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics. Work­ers at Anchor say the start­ing wage is low­er now than it was 5 years ago. This squeeze is in stark con­trast to larg­er brew­eries such as Anheuser-Busch, where thou­sands of work­ers are mem­bers of the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Team­sters and receive high­er wages than their craft counterparts.

While so-called bread-and-but­ter issues are cen­tral to the union dri­ve, Belden empha­sized that the cam­paign is also about con­trol, and hav­ing a say in one’s own life.

I rent a place, and I can get kicked out any time. I’m an at-will employ­ee — I have no con­trol in that area of my life. I think once [my cowork­ers] real­ized that they could have an iota of con­trol, peo­ple start­ed tak­ing them­selves more seri­ous­ly. Peo­ple are valu­ing their work and real­iz­ing that, Hey, all our man­agers moved here from Cana­da and Japan; we are the company.’”

The union with which Anchor work­ers have cho­sen to orga­nize, the ILWU, remains a bright spot in a U.S. labor move­ment that has found itself on the back foot for decades, besieged on all sides by anti-union politi­cians, mon­eyed orga­ni­za­tions that are hos­tile to labor and unfa­vor­able court rul­ings. The part­ner­ship, facil­i­tat­ed through the San Fran­cis­co chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, of which sev­er­al orga­niz­ers of the Anchor union are mem­bers, is a promis­ing sign that, where oth­er attempts have failed, these work­ers may suc­ceed. And that’s why they’re hop­ing not only to improve their own work­ing con­di­tions, but to inspire oth­ers in the craft beer indus­try to unionize.

There is space for fight­ing unions right now,” said Belden. In the past year, since Trump’s elec­tion, and since Janus, we’ve seen the labor­ers and work­ers and the toil­ers of Amer­i­ca — espe­cial­ly the teach­ers and nurs­es — get aggres­sive. But lots of peo­ple who work in these blue-col­lar jobs, for some rea­son they think that because they aren’t car­pen­ters or some­thing, they can’t have a union…People like it when Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez fights, peo­ple like when Bernie Sanders fights, but they can’t think of them­selves fight­ing, or their unions fight­ing. We’re hop­ing to change that, we hope this can con­tribute to a fight­ing unionism.”

Alex Press is an assis­tant edi­tor at Jacobin. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @alexnpress.
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