Craft beer's Creatures go union
A new union drive at Athens, GA's Creature Comforts faces a familiar foe
Earlier this month, workers at Creature Comforts Brewing Company in Athens, Georgia, went public with a drive to organize the maintenance, taproom, and production departments under the newly minted, fully independent Brewing Union of Georgia. Nearly two weeks later, the company has yet to recognize the union, instead hiring a notorious management-side law firm and disseminating common union-busting talking points to its ~120-person staff.
“We were cautiously hopeful for voluntary recognition, [given] the fact that the values and the culture that Creature wants to stand for is in line with what the union is, and what unions are,” Katie Britton, a brand marketing manager at Creature Comforts who has helped organized the drive, tells Fingers in a recent phone interview. “It’s definitely disappointing to not have received that.”
Representatives for Creature Comforts declined to make an executive available for an interview, advising that management was “working on a statement.” If/when that materializes, I’ll update this story accordingly.
Creature Comfort workers—Creatures, in the brewery’s parlance—say they have signed union cards from 75% of the proposed organizing unit, though Britton declined to specify raw numbers. They’ve organized around grab-bag of issues that seem to crop up whenever I cover a craft brewery drive. (Besides pay, I mean: that one crops up in just about every union drive regardless of industry, including this one.) Creatures want more ability to hold management accountable to the brewery’s stated values (“Our hope is to be a force for good in the world through the development of industry-leading beverages and experiences,” reads its website). They want better staffing and planning so they don’t get burnt out by Creature Comforts’ ambitious expansion plans, which include increased regional distribution and the development of a Los Angeles outpost. And Creatures want to close what Britton, who has worked at the company for just over three years, calls a “widening chasm” between workers and management on matters of policy and practice, which they say is increasingly being handed down from above rather than developed collaboratively.
“We're not looking for an us-versus-them situation. This is really about making it better across the company,” they added.
The company doesn’t appear to be taking it that way. Britton told Fingers that since BUG announced its drive on January 13th, Creature Comforts has retained Littler Mendelson, a notorious anti-union law firm that has consulted on brazen union-busting efforts against Starbucks baristas, as well as retail workers at an Apple store in Atlanta, just an hour down the road from Athens. “We’ve started hear messaging that sounds like” it’s been taken from the standard union-busting playbook, they told me. “Things around the union being a third party, that it will just cause delays, [management] not being able to work with us on raises and promotions anymore because everything will have to go through lawyers, talking about how expensive dues would be coming out of your paycheck… just pushing back in these ways.” A representative for Creature Comforts declined to confirm whether the brewery had hired Littler Mendelson or address Britton’s allegations, which BUG later articulated on its Instagram page.
Management’s decision to fight BUG and the Creatures may be disappointing, but it’s not surprising. In industries that lack union density, owners often feel more emboldened to fight organizing drives, and the American craft brewing business is almost entirely non-union. It’s also not surprising that Britton and their colleagues opted to form an independent union like Amazon warehouse workers did, rather than organize with an already-established one. The industry, which includes some 9,000 businesses in all 50 states employing 170,000+ workers, presents tricky logistical challenges to unions: its work is an unusual mix of hospitality, retail, and manufacturing, and its geography is a big map full of small targets that offer little “bang for buck” for union organizers already short on resources and more accustomed to playing defense after decades of declining union density.
There are cultural obstacles, too: compounding mythologies of revolution, entrepreneurialism, and the passion economy have, for most of the industry’s short history, kept craft brewing workers from banding together to demand a fair slice of the multi-billion-dollar pie. This was already starting to change pre-pandemic, with workers at Anchor Brewing—a, if not the, modern birthplace of craft brewing—successfully winning a hard-fought election in 2019 to bargain with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. As with everything else, Covid-19 kicked things up a notch, with brewery drives at Fair State Brewing Cooperative (win) and Surly (loss) in Minneapolis and a ton of others at distilleries, coffeeshops, and other adjacent craft businesses, plus 250+ Starbucks locations all over the country.
Now, the BUG drive has brought the labor movement to a craft brewery in one of the least-union-dense states in the country. It’ll be an uphill battle, but Britton says BUG is committed to winning its recognition, whether it comes voluntarily or from a majority vote in the National Labor Relations Board election the union has already filed for. “I truly believe that the industry is ready for this,” they tell Fingers, noting that the union’s name was deliberately chosen to allow for more organizing across Georgia’s 150+ breweries, not just Creature Comforts. Working through the pandemic “opened everyone's eyes to [the notion that] we should be able to have a job that we enjoy and also have a life that we enjoy. Instead of this attitude of ‘Well, if you don't like the way the system is set up, leave,’ we’re like, ‘We want to make the system better.’”
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