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Major in Beer

Solidarity by the Pint

by | Nov 21, 2020

A mural inside Meridian Pint, a pub in Washington, D.C. photo/Tom Major

Many years ago, I served on the board of directors of the Maine Education Association (MEA), the parent organization of the state’s teachers’ unions. The MEA’s president at the time only drank Bud Light, a beer proudly brewed by union workers. He was impervious to all my arguments against this, like buying local, knowing your brewer, and, of course, drinking a beer that tastes good. And I will grant him this — when he sang “Solidarity Forever,” he really meant it.

Back then, I asked a few friends who worked in breweries whether they would join a union if they had the chance. They all had the same response: our brewery is too small to unionize. Labor organizers would debate that, but I wasn’t trying to get the teachers’ union into Geary’s or Sebago, so I didn’t press the point.

Maine has some big breweries now, but there are still no unions among them. An effort to unionize Portland’s Rising Tide Brewing Company was opposed by ownership and nixed by its organizers last January, when a vote to join the Teamsters seemed likely to fail. A worker fired by Rising Tide this summer filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming he was let go due to his labor activism (the NLRB is still investigating the case).

Relatively few of the roughly 7,000 brewing companies in the USA are unionized. If you’re hoisting a pint of solidarity these days, it’s probably a beer made by Budweiser, Miller or Pabst.

Founded in Minnesota in 1860, August Schell Brewing Co. is one of America’s oldest union breweries. Its workers are represented by United Steelworkers. Teamsters brew Saranac beers at the F.X. Matt Company in Utica, N.Y., and have also organized some workers at Boston Beer Company, brewer of Samuel Adams. Two other unions represent other Sam Adams employees.

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Headless Mumby Brewing, a small outfit in Olympia, Wash., welcomed the International Association of Steelworkers, Machinists, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) last year. Brewery co-owner Alex Maffeo, who’s also an industrial HVAC tech, has been in the union since 2005. Headless Mumby offers discounts to SMART members and hosts a May Day fundraiser to support women in the trades.

The Japanese mega-brewer Sapporo bought San Francisco’s venerable Anchor Brewing Company in 2017. Not long after, workers began to question whether they were getting their fair share of the value they created. They felt squeezed between the city’s notoriously high cost of living and Sapporo’s demands for more profit. Last December, they voted to organize with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

More recently, the Fair State Brewing Cooperative, in Minneapolis, voluntarily recognized the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (UNITE-HERE). A consumer co-op committed to democratic principles in the workplace, Fair State chose to accept the union in September without requiring a vote by the workers.

Sheigh Freeberg, an organizer with UNITE-HERE Local 17, said the union was “in the middle of a couple of very public fights” with other bosses at the time, including another Minneapolis brewery, Surly Brewing Company. Informed that workers wanted to unionize, Surly’s owners did require a vote, but then closed their taproom before the vote could take place. Many workers and customers don’t buy the brass’ explanation that the closure was strictly COVID-related.

As a thirty-four-year union member and former local president, I want to reassure Maine brewery staff about unions. You probably feel grateful to have your job, especially with COVID straining so many industries, and maybe you even feel like the brewery owners are friends more than bosses. Your benefits might be better than those of most folks you know and, of course, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

But collective bargaining doesn’t erode camaraderie on the job; it fosters it. The tough conversations are delegated to a few representatives, insulating everyone else from the drama. The focus is on the problem, not the personalities involved.

Sure, I hope to enjoy a pint of union-brewed Maine beer someday soon, but that’s not the best argument for unionizing a brewery. The best argument comes from a beertender at Fair State Brewing named Keegan: “We aren’t starting a union because Fair State is a bad place to work, but because it is a great place to work and we don’t want that to change.”

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