Plus the latest from the union drive at Creature Comforts
People don’t tend to appreciate being told they drink too much, so it was never going to be easy for Canadian public-health officials to convince its hard-drinking citizens that even a little bit of booze is bad for them. But when the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction announced earlier this month that it was revising its guidance on “low-risk” drinking from 15 drinks per week down to just two, and that it now believes all alcohol consumption increases risk of cancer, it touched off a “total shitshow” that reveals how tightly booze is woven into the emotional, cultural, and commercial fabric of the Great White North—and the political stakes of pulling at those threads.
“The commentary I've seen mostly has not been super encouraging,” says James Wilt, laughing. A Winnipeg resident, Wilt is the author of 2022’s Drinking Up the Revolution: How to Smash Big Alcohol and Reclaim Working-Class Joy, a book that documents with convincing detail how beverage-alcohol conglomerates project power and collect profit at the expense of public health and social wellbeing. Drinking Up the Revolution is a Fingers Must-Read Banger of a Book™️ (FM-RBoaB™️), and having already discussed its global findings with Wilt on The Fingers Podcast last year, I called him up last week to get an in-depth perspective on the local-for-him regulatory battle over booze now raging in Canadian public discourse.
Wilt considers the new guidelines—which replace a much less stringent set from 2011—to be “on point,” but “politically challenging” because of how easily conservative narratives about nanny states, federal meddling, and contempt for expertise map onto the issue. A former journalist himself, he thinks the Canadian press has actually handled the issue fairly accurately, but says the country’s right-wing pundits has distorted both the underlying science and the guidelines derived from it into disingenuous whataboutism that provides a valuable shield for Big Booze’s social license to operate there. For example, here’s how conservative commentator Brian Lilley framed the CCSA’s recommendations in a recent Toronto Sun column (emphasis mine):
It’s a load of nonsense being pushed by researchers with an agenda and a willingness to use fear and distortion to push their message… The research is far from spectacular in this report; the document reads more like a paper written by a new convert to the religion of alcoholics anonymous.
Lilley, who has no apparent public health or medical experience, also accuses the CCSA of being “run by a new modern version of the temperance movement of 100 years ago.” Like-minded libertarian types across Canada and the United Kingdom (where similar public-health debates over alcohol are currently unfolding) have framed Canada’s new, completely non-binding guidelines as pernicious government overreach that over-exaggerates a minor downside to alcohol as a way to exert control over the population.
If that sounds familiar, it should. “It really strikes me as similar [rhetoric] as Covid deniers, like ‘Oh, everything is going to kill me, everything is carcinogenic, therefore why would I give a shit?’ It’s just frankly anti-science,” Wilt says. Arguments that the guidelines will pave the way for higher taxes and reduced availability of alcohol at retail are similarly disingenuous. Though the CCSA also renewed its recommendation to put a cancer warning label on alcohol sold in Canada, it isn’t empowered to actually do that, or make any of the sweeping policy changes right-wingers are insisting it’s about to. As a non-governmental organization formed by Canadian Parliament, it advises on policy, but does not set it.
That should sound familiar, too, considering the recent, insane conservative uproar here in the United States a couple weeks ago over the gentlest suggestion from public-health researchers that the government should maybe-sorta-at-some-point-down-the-line start phasing out gas stoves because of their longstanding link with increased rates of child asthma. That flurry of malicious stupidity managed to obstruct a productive debate about public-health regulations for a fixable problem, which is something of a national pastime for American conservatives. Wilt, riffing on that parallel, emphasized how both cases demonstrate the need for a sophisticated politics that takes public panic over the proposed changes seriously—no matter how unserious the people stoking it are.
“If there’s going to be a political push beyond [the CCSA’s recommendations], it really does need to account for people's real anxieties around inflation and cost of living and feeling like the world is going to shit and all these sorts of things,” he says. I tend to agree. Like cooking, drinking is a common, intimate act that sit on a continuum between survival and leisure for most people. Just like the rational suggestion to replace your gas stove with an induction range can create sincere alarm over cost and convenience, the rational suggestion to drink less can create sincere apprehension that one of your only small pleasures in life is about to get less affordable and accessible. Bad-faith right-wing actors motivated by industry money or ideological opposition are very good at exploiting that kind of distress!
In the case of the CCSA’s recommendations—which, again, rank-and-file Canadian drinkers remain free to disregard if they want to!—Wilt is encouraged by the agency’s efforts, but believes they pale in comparison to the scope of the problem. “There really need to be structural shifts that allow for people to use different substances or not use substances at all, and still feel like they can be part of society, because currently, that's a pretty significant impediment” to regulating alcohol, he tells me. In Drinking Up the Revolution, he details some of those shifts: more public spaces, more decriminalized and regulated drugs, better public transit, and an alcohol industry divorced entirely from profit (or at least aggressively regulated in seeking it). It’s a bold vision of how the world could be. The reactionary uproar currently raging up north is a glimpse of just how politically difficult it’ll be to make it so.
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🍺 At Creature Comforts, the Brewing Union of Georgia readies for a fight
Earlier this week I reported on the union drive at regional favorite Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in Athens, Georgia, where taproom, production, and maintenance workers are organizing as the Brewing Union of Georgia to demand better wages, better communication from management, and more of a voice on the job. Workers say a strong majority of the proposed unit has signed union cards, and had called on Creature Comforts’ chief executive Chris Herron, to voluntarily recognize the union in mid-January. Instead, they told me early last week that managers had begun disseminating anti-union messaging with the help of Littler Mendelson, a big, expensive “union-avoidance” law firm that has recently implemented anti-union campaigns at Starbucks and Apple.
Things have escalated further since. Creature Comforts’ public relations firm declined multiple requests from Fingers for an interview with Herron, and declined multiple opportunities to comment on BUG workers’ allegations of anti-union activity over the course of the week. On Friday night, just before 7pm EST, two full weeks after organizers first called for voluntary recognition, the brewery management finally provided Fingers a formal statement on the drive, stating the company “unequivocally and fully respect our employees exercising their rights” while also indicating that it would not voluntarily recognize the union, forcing an election. The statement was signed by Herron and Adam Beauchamp, Creature Comforts’ chief operating officer. The same evening, BUG announced it had filed two unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the NLRB alleging management had told workers in a captive audience meeting on 1/26 and sent follow-up emails to workers that it said were managers and therefore unable to vote for the union. BUG’s second ULP alleges Creature Comforts managers threatened another employee with termination on 1/23 as retaliation for organizing. (Both these tactics, as well as the decision to force a ballot election with the NLRB rather than voluntarily recognize its workers’ union, are common union-busting tactics designed to delay and defeat drives.)
I followed up with Katie Britton, a brand marketing manager and organizer at Creature Comforts, to get their take on management’s latest moves. “Workers are not experiencing the pride, respect, support, or opportunity for our voices to be heard. The fact that we feel it necessary to file ULPs makes it clear they haven’t been listening to us,” they told Fingers. “We are frustrated that they feel like this is how they need to treat us, instead of just meeting us at the at the [bargaining] table, as we've been asking for the whole time.”
Now what? Anticipating that management would fight the union, BUG organizers filed for a secret ballot election with the NLRB on 1/17. Britton tells Fingers the agency has scheduled a hearing for 2/8 to advance the election process. In the meantime, the Creatures are preparing for a fight, launching a fundraiser to defray potential legal costs incurred during a drawn out drive and staying in close communication with one another and their organizing allies at Athens’ Economic Justice Coalition and Democratic Socialists of America chapter to keep spirits high and information flowing. Says Britton: “We’re feeling strong together.”
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There's no doubt that drinking, especially in significant quantities, has a negative impact on one's health, though that of course is easier to say over very large population and time ranges. What I push back on are two elements: the first, that there's anything like enough scientific evidence to put out a precise number of drinks per week that is safe, especially as a universal statement.
The second is that I find the idea of looking at this solely through the lens of economic impact (again, to the extent that this can even be measured) to be deeply weird and kind of strange for you - our lives and the way we live them matter a lot more than the amount of money we cost our employers when we get sick or whatever.
It's certainly within the purview of a federal agency to investigate this, and maybe even to issue some sort of finding. It's incumbent on us to recognize their necessary limitations, the narrowness of their point of view, and the fact that our lives and existences can't really be reduced to economic impact.
Hey Dave, I don't know that I agree with Wilt/you on this one - I find this Twitter thread pretty persuasive: https://twitter.com/DanMalleck/status/1615701572826038275