Discover more from Fingers
Up the drinks, up the workers
Plus: Potemkin weed unions be flourishing!
On Friday, the Beer Institute, the United States brewing business’s biggest and most important trade group, sent out an email blast “toast[ing] the nearly 2.4 million men and women currently employed by the U.S. beer industry.” Which is nice!
Here’s the entirety of the org’s acknowledgement of the American labor movement—which is explicitly responsible for securing the first Monday of September as a federal celebration of labor, among many other hard-fought gains that the nation’s workforce now enjoys by default—in its pre-holiday dispatch:
For those of you keeping score at home, Prohibition was repealed 90 years ago this December. It’s true that unions were a part of the broad coalition of civic organizations, trade groups, and politicians that successfully demanded the end to one of this country’s most notorious policy failures. But if you didn’t know any better, the BI’s phrasing might lead you to believe that the American labor movement’s agitation for the 21st Amendment nearly a century ago was its most recent contribution of note to this nation’s brewing industry. That’s emphatically not the case.
Unions (mostly the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, though there are others) represent tens of thousands of workers at at the nation’s biggest breweries, and tens of thousands more at beer, wine, and liquor wholesalers. As wealth inequality soared through the back half of the 20th century, those workers have been able to bargain collectively for better wages, company-funded retirement plans, and more job security. They’ve helped boycott Coors Brewing Company over the company’s allegedly discriminatory hiring practices and its family owners’ arch-conservative politics. They struck Yakima Valley hop growers over dismal pay and conditions, and helped uphold the United Farm Workers’ pivotal boycott on California’s table-grape titans. They inadvertently helped turn Old Style signs into a ubiquitous feature of Chicago’s cityscape by striking Anheuser-Busch—slightly less heroic than the other examples, but much funnier.
Even more recently, unions have begun organizing at craft breweries, where younger generations of workers are grappling with the downsides of the so-called “passion economy.” And they’ve helped to produce vast wealth along the way: by the BI’s own estimates, the American beer industry is a tremendously lucrative enterprise, generating $63 billion in taxes paid and $409 billion in overall economic impact last year alone. Union labor contributed to that bottom line.
I ascribe the BI no malice here, and omitting the labor movement’s many contributions to the American beer business in a one-off email blast isn’t the biggest deal in and of itself. But it’s a good example of the extent to which workers’ righteous struggle for wealth and dignity on the job has faded from view in modern U.S. history. Beer—like wine, spirits, and literally everything else we consume—is the fruit of labor, and laborers deserve a fair share of the value they create. Organized labor is a fallible, imperfect, and often-frustrating institution, but it has nevertheless proven to be the best instrument available for workers to secure that share, in the brewing industry and every other. Labor’s history is American history, and vice-versa. Beverage alcohol is not exempt.
So! Instead of the standard Fingers Weekender, today’s boozeletter will be a wall-to-wall worker special in honor of Labor Day 2023. Below you’ll find some new coverage, as well as some recent highlights the reporting I’ve done at the intersection of labor and booze over the years.
This edition is free to all, but as a laborer myself, I depend on reader support to earn a living, so if you haven’t yet, please consider buying subscription to fund my independent journalism on drinking in America:
Thanks to all the Friends of Fingers who already underwrite this work with their hard-earned beer money. Up the drinks, up the workers. Enjoy your weekend, Fingers Fam.
🗞️ New coverage
After 51 days on the picket line, Leinenkugel workers have a contract. The strike is over in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where 40 Leinenkugel employees repped by Teamsters Local 662 ratified a contract last week with Molson Coors, which has owned the shandy-maker since 1988. “These members are going back to work with more than they struck for,” the local announced on its Facebook page. I haven’t been able to find many details about the new three-year contract, though WORT community radio in Madison, Wisconsin is reporting that one of the workers’ wins includes “clearer guidelines on how workers would receive wage increases.” I have an email in with the Local 662 for more details; if you know more, get in touch!
The National Labor Relations Board ruled for the Brewing Union of Georgia. After more than seven months, workers at Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in Athens are one major step closer to their long-delayed union election. I’ve covered this drive from the beginning, and it was acrimonious basically off the rip, with the brewery’s management hiring a notorious anti-union law firm, allegedly making coercive threats to pro-union workers, and even suspending a couple of them. (One of those workers was later fired; B.U.G. has filed an unfair labor practice complaint to demand his reinstatement.) Creature Comforts’ bosses had also contested the scope of the union’s proposed bargaining unit—a common union-busting tactic—but last week, the NLRB approved the unit that workers had petitioned for. It’s a win, but not the win: B.U.G. still awaits the board’s decision on a date for the actual vote, from which it must also emerge victorious. What a saga.
Fake unions are “flourish[ing]” in California’s cannabis industry. The state requires commercial licensees with more than 20 employees to enter into labor peace agreements (LPAs) with a “bona-fide labor organization,” or else jeopardize their ability to participate in the state’s $5.3 billion marijuana industry. Reporting by MJBizDaily’s Chris Roberts shows that some Cali cannabis firms are flouting that requirement by signing LPAs with so-called “company unions”—fake orgs that do no actual organizing, collect no dues, and basically only exist on paper to rubber-stamp would-be licensees’ applications.Last week, Roberts reported that the Teamsters filed a complaint with the Golden State’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) against one of these Potemkin unions, the National Agricultural Workers Union, and the company with which it’s signed a bunch of LPAs, Caliva. Caliva, by the way, is owned by a parent company that is literally named The Parent Co. Seems very legit!
Elysian Brewing Co. workers voted to join the Teamsters. After going public with their organizing drive in July, a majority of workers at the Seattle craft brewery voted to bargain collectively with Teamsters Local 117 midway through last month. The vote was 20-12. I argued in July that this unionization effort, and another at Widmer Bros.that’s currently in the bargaining phase, represent a big chance for labor to show craft brewing workers across the country what the movement has to offer them because of ABI’s prominence in the industry and existing Teamster representation. Stay tuned.
✊ Beverage-alcohol labor bangers from the archive
I went back through Fingers’ annals (what a phrase) thinking I’d pull three or four stories to resurface here, but it turns out I report on the labor movement’s crossover with the beverage-alcohol industry quite a bit. So uh… here’s a whole lot of that reportage! I also file some labor coverage in my weekly column at VinePair, but for the sake of time/space, I’m not going to highlight those clips today. Alright, I’ll shut up and play the hits!
I reported on the union drive at Stranahan’s Distillery, where workers organizing with UFCW Local 7 suspected the company (owned by the billionaire Beckmann family of Jose Cuervo fame/shame) of intentionally dragging out bargaining over an all-important first contract.
Anders Bloomquist, a part-time packaging worker at the Twin Cities' Fair State Brewing Cooperative who is also organizing across Minnesota's craft beverage sector with UNITE HERE Local 17, spoke to Fingers earlier this year about an union drive he was working on at a Duluth craft distillery, and why he believes the sector is primed for more organizing.
Workers organizing an independent union at Athens, GA’s popular Creature Comforts Brewing Co. went public with their drive back in January, kicking off what would become a seven-month-long slog that’s still unresolved today.
I interviewed Jonah Furman, then a writer and organizer at the worker publication/organizing platform Labor Notes, about the intractable disadvantages labor organizers face, and how they’re overcoming them in this historic moment of pro-union public sentiment.
I interviewed Dylan Lancaster, worker and organizer at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery, about his colleagues’ drive with UFCW Local 1995 to form the state’s first distillery union. (The supplier, owned by multinational conglomerate Constellation Brands, would later go on to defeat the drive.)
Workers at Heaven Hill Distillery’s Bardstown, Kentucky plant struck the company for 1.5 months, but ultimately were forced to ratify a contract that some said wasn’t much better than what they’d been striking for. I reported on the strike, and obtained photos of relevant pages from the final contract, publishing them here at the boozeletter.
For Labor Day 2021, I reported on the groundswell of labor-organizing momentum in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where UNITE HERE Local 17 had spent the first year of the pandemic working on union drives at the metro's breweries, distilleries, and third-wave coffee shops.
In 2021, Fingers spoke with Dr. Brantley, an associate professor of history at the University of La Verne and the author of Brewing a Boycott, about the legacy of the three-decade Coors boycott—considered by some to be the longest consumer-led boycott of any American firm.
In 2020, workers at Surly Brewing Co.'s Minneapolis restaurant organized with UNITE HERE Local 17. I reported on the drive and the company's dismal response to it. That drive ultimately failed, as did another concurrent one at a local chain in the city, Spyhouse Coffee. I spoke with workers about lessons learned.
That strike was particularly gnarly, and lasted over 14 weeks. Workers returned to the nine struck A-B plants having secured a raise of $2.25 an hour and $0.40 in fringe benefits—which works out to an extra ~$12/hour in 2022 dollars. Not bad.
Thanks to Friend of Fingers Milos for the tip!
Also, Jay-Z is an investor in The Parent Co., which isn’t really relevant to the apparent subterfuge, but is a mildly interesting coincidence I guess?