"You’re always going to be the underdog."
Former workers from Surly Beer Hall and Spyhouse Coffee Roasters on union election losses and lessons learned
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In August, workers at Surly Brewing Company’s Beer Hall—a sleek, popular restaurant/taproom adjacent to the prominent east Minneapolis craft brewery—went public with their union drive. Organizers said a majority of the 100+ workers in the Beer Hall’s front- and back-of-house were prepared to cast votes in favor of forming a union with UNITE HERE Local 17.
At the time, I detailed the particulars of the drive in this piece, co-published with Welcome to Hell World on Labor Day Weekend. Surly, a 14 year-old outfit, has regional stature and beer world cachet, and its drive came at a moment of promise for “craft” hospitality organizing in Minneapolis. A wave of successful drives swept through the city’s F&B community over the past nine months, with craft distilleries Tattersall, Lawless, and Stilheart, and microbrewery Fair State Brewing Cooperative among the Twin Cities shops that won unions either shortly before or shortly after the Beer Hall workers’ announcement.
But when the Surly union election actually took place in early October, organizers and workers found themselves just one vote shy of the majority they needed. The drive had failed.
In early November, Surly closed the Beer Hall indefinitely, putting employees out of work as the coronavirus pandemic’s third wave tore through the upper Midwest. (The company claimed that the decision to close the business was had been planned since before the workers’ announcement. “We know when we're being bullshitted,” Andy Magill, a now-former Surly worker, told me at the time.)
A couple weeks later, workers at Spyhouse Coffee Roasters, a local chain third-wave coffee shops across the Twin Cities, cast votes in their own union election. Theirs was a hard-fought drive too, organized in a half-dozen shops and punctuated by a work stoppage that UNITE HERE organizers claimed was the first successful food service strike in the city in 20 years. Still, the effort came up short—14 workers voted against the union, and only 11 for it.
Union drives fail all the time in this country because our laws, education systems, social welfare system, popular media, et cetera have been precision-engineered for decades to make it extremely difficult to organize successfully. “It just goes to show what an uphill battle this is,” one former Spyhouse worker, Matt Marciniec, told me recently, speaking just days after the election loss. “This is just how the system is structured.”
Still after a brutal year of slashed hours, deranged customers, and viral foreboding, the country’s food-and-beverage workforce at large—a fractured, transient, but massive labor pool that has long tantalized and vexed organizers—seems more aware than ever of the power they collectively wield. Put another way, though the pandemic may have complicated the mechanics of organizing, it has also convinced many F&B workers that to preserve their livelihoods and lives, they must have at least some control over how their shops are run.
As one labor organizer told In These Times in September:
We’ve seen a significant uptick in workers contacting us about organizing from the restaurant industry, and in the food service [and] hospitality sector more broadly […] Workers are very concerned about the lack of safety protections regarding Covid, the lack of paid sick leave and the drop in income many anticipate as a result of serving fewer customers.
All the more reason then, to learn more about what happened at Surly and Spyhouse. Understanding, from a worker’s perspective, how things went south at these two craft-oriented firms might shed some light on pitfalls that other F&B workers—in breweries, restaurants, cheese shops, whatever—will face on future drives across the country.
To that end, I spoke with three former workers at Surly Beer Hall, and two former workers from Spyhouse about the lessons they’d taken away from their drives. Below are excerpts from those interviews, edited and condensed for clarity and organized thematically.
Brace for a fight no matter how friendly the company or industry seems
Lou Olson, former front-of-house staff at Surly: I really expected [the bosses] to be more receptive to [unionizing.] A lot of Surly’s foundational [principles] were like Stand up for what you support, and like, Help each other out, you know? Get Surly, that sort of thing. So I was definitely not expecting such a staunch “no” position [from the company], just an absolute disregard for the concerns we were expressing.
We were so prepared for it to go one way: This is how its going to happen, this is how we’re going to express what we’re doing, this is how they’re going to respond. We didn’t… I mean, one thing I’d prepare other workers for is to make make a gameplan for a myriad of responses [from their companies.]
They will say things to get you to stick around, but they know that they can find 20 other people the next day to replace you.
Matt Marciniec, former barista at Spyhouse: Being one of the first [Twin Cities F&B shops in this wave] to try this, we didn't know what could have gone wrong. There was no example, so we didn't realize that [failure] was a thing we had to prepare for… I knew that they were probably going to avoid [allowing the union.] They might try to push propaganda. I knew it was a possibility. I just wasn't prepared for it to happen in the real world. It just goes to show what an uphill battle this is, because this is just how the system is structured. You’re always going to be the underdog. Management has all the power, they have the tools, and they have the experience. And they’re just as organized as the working class. They know how to fight.
Andy Magill, former back-of-house staff at Surly: [Our organizer] had prepped us for it, and told us how other shops had reacted. And we’d been following Tattersall[’s at-times contentious drive], so were were expecting something kind of like that. So I wasn’t too surprised by how tactful [Surly] was at trying to get us to not win the election… But I guess we did get caught off guard a little bit.
Don’t trust what the bosses tell you once the drive goes public
Taylor Roth, former barista at Spyhouse: I think one big thing I learned was no matter what company says to you via email or in person, at the end of the day, they’re concerned about profit. Even though you might be a skilled barista, if you’re a minimum-wage worker, that company sees you as replaceable. They will say things to get you to stick around, but they know that they can find 20 other people the next day to replace you.
MARCINIEC, fmr. Spyhouse: The president did everything he could to put a more positive face [on the company] and tried really hard to play the nice guy. But it was still all tone—it was still the same company with the same policies, the same disconnect between the staff and the higher-ups.
Isabelle Rolfes, former front-of-house staff at Surly: Just don't ever trust an employer to do the right thing when it might impact their pockets.
Beware turnover and transience, which can cripple a drive
MARCINIEC, fmr. Spyhouse: [Turnover] is a huge reason the energy left. At the very beginning, we had all these people energetic [for the drive] and ready to strike, all gung-ho because they’d experienced this company forever and knew what was wrong with it and wanted to fight back. But as those people quit, then our Zoom calls were getting progressively smaller, just down to the five or six of us that were super-committed.
It just felt like they were trying to force us out. And they did: [the company] got a lot of people to quit. They were all supportive of the union but also just weren’t ready to fight it out as long as possible, so they were like We gotta get out of here, this is not a place for us. I don't blame them for that! I think around 15 employees quit [out of a ~30-person unit.]
Younger part-timers didn't understand why some of us had this as a full-time job, why we were making it our career.
ROTH, fmr. Spyhouse: About a month after we initially marched on the boss, we lost basically all the managers that were helping the drive. [At this stage, Spyhouse organizers believed café managers could be included in their eventual bargaining unit, because those roles didn’t have hiring/firing power.] All of those café managers that initially were part of the team to start the drive were basically given an ultimatum by upper management: do everything you can to stop the union, or you need to hand in your keys.
We had an emergency Zoom that night so we could hear about what was happening. And the managers were all basically like, We’re handing in our keys tomorrow, none of us can rightfully continue to work for this company. I respect all of them, but it was hard to lose those people. A lot of baristas quit after the [café] managers quit, so we had this trickle-down effect. We lost momentum. I felt it too. There were many days where I was like, I don't want to work here no matter what.
MARCINIEC: We definitely got a couple of the new hires to join our side, because there were only 14 “no” votes. But I think [the company] was able convince the new people that [the union] is not something you want… those new hires weren’t in on those original conversations. I don’t think they they were ever really able to understand why this was their fight to win, too.
I don’t know what kind of communication the company gave new hires [about the union drive] when they were being trained in, but it seems to have worked, and it kind of turned the new hires against us.
ROTH: As a new hire, who are you going to trust initially: the people that are paying you, or your coworkers? That’s hard when you’re just starting out at a new job.
MARCINIEC: Maybe in talking to new hires we were too ideological, or the way we communicated was just not effective. Maybe we came at them with too much intensity. I don’t know. We didn’t talk to them any differently than we talked to anyone else.
Watch out for uncertainty & apathy amongst coworkers, especially during downtime
ROLFES, fmr. Surly: I think we lost a little bit of momentum from what we had in the beginning. We announced our union, and then two days later they told us we were gonna be laid off come November. That devastated a lot of people. We didn't expect that at all; we didn’t even have that in our potential [contingencies.] That definitely rocked us a lot, and we didn't really know how to go from there.
MAGILL, fmr. Surly: In the time between us going public and the election [Surly announced that it would close the Beer Hall.] There were plenty of people who were like, OK, so we win the election, but then what? I’m not gonna sit around all winter, and maybe they reopen, and maybe I can get my job back… As that month went on, some people then started to voice [reservations.]
It didn't feel like we had the resources that we really needed to be successful.
ROLFES: It was kind of like trying to get people to reevaluate why they would vote “yes” [if they were just going to be laid-off anyway.] There were definitely conversations that we had that were like well this is, you know, not just about us but about people who are going to work for [Surly], they need to have representation because we never had that, and we experienced firsthand what comes with that.
Trying to form an argument where it was like, Oh you need to vote [for the union] because who knows, you might need a job when they reopen. It was definitely really hard knowing you're not going to be there by the end of October.
Expect challenges communicating across F&B divides like FOH/BOH
MAGILL, fmr. Surly: Make your intentions very clear about why you want a union and what you want out of the union. With Surly, I think a lot of the back-of-house didn’t vote yes; I think a lot of the sous chefs thought of it as just the front-of-house whining about wages. Maybe that was on me for not expressing the back-of-house consensus as the [de facto] back-of-house spokesperson. Get the message clear across the board for the entire shop.
ROTH, fmr. Spyhouse: When upper management just started to hire like younger part-timers, [they] didn't understand why some of us had this as a full-time job, why we were making it our career.
MARCINIEC, fmr. Spyhouse: In the past, it seemed like you worked in a coffee shop or a bar as something you do while you're trying to look for your next gig. There was kind of a temporary [nature to to the work.] But I don’t know any more. I’ll go to bars and I’ll know people who’ve been working there for 15 years.
I think the service industry, especially in urban environments, is replacing a lot of industrial jobs that have left. I think it's becoming a little more permanent where you’re like: This this is what I do for a living. This is my career. I mean there are career baristas who have been doing this for like 10 years. It’s no longer just a means to survive. If you’re a worker you deserve rights regardless of the social stigma or perceived [value] society places on your profession.
Ask questions of your organizers, and expect limited resources
ROLFES, fmr. Surly: We were assigned a union representative who was the representative of many others movements at the time. He was very, very busy and had a lot on his plate… It did kind of feel like we were completely on our own, running this blind, and none of us had done this before. I’m not blaming the union, I do think that they did the best that they could with their resources. But it didn't feel like we had the resources that we really needed to be successful.
OLSON, fmr. Surly: It's like kind of like going to get your car fixed and talking to someone who knows the ins-and-outs of it because they work on [cars] every single days. When you're talking to [organizers], you almost feel a little stupid, or talked-down upon, because you don’t know as much as they do. It's no fault of theirs, but it's one of those [situations]: they work in this every single day, this is their wheelhouse. An average person who isn't a part of it everyday might not know the same things [organizers] do. It's asking questions, and asking them, Be candid with me, what can we expect here?
ROTH, fmr. Spyhouse: It seems the company really tried to spin it as, Oh UNITE HERE is [bad], and look, what they're doing is [bad]. Like, no: [the Spyhouse drive] was really worker-driven. I think I needed more knowledge… I knew what good the union would do, but I think if I had more specifics on what our jobs would look like after the vote, then maybe it would have been easier to talk to people about the benefits of the union.
If we had a little bit more space for workers to ask questions and to get information, I think we might have been more successful. With COVID, it was hard for the organizers to visit cafés and talk to people.
Spyhouse workers narrowly vote against unionization; company rewards them with hazard pay (Minnesota Reformer, 11/18/20)
Suddenly, the local service industry is fighting to unionize. Inside the pro-labor push. (City Pages, 10/14/20)
Surly workers union fails by razor-thin margin, abstained votes (City Pages, 10/8/20)
Why unionize in a pandemic? Twin Cities workers explain (Bring Me The News, 10/13/20)
The bottom shelf
Fingers, the newsletter from Dave Infante, is largely focused on the spirits and drinking world, but it’s also got a very healthy muckraking streak to it, and reports on a lot of labor issues in the beverage industry that anyone who cares about working conditions will find fascinating whether or not you know what a double IPA is which I still do not to be honest.
Me either, Luke. Anyway, a big ol’ Fingers welcome to everyone who joined up from The Discontents/WTHW. I am grateful to have you.
Programming note: it has come to my attention that many of you didn’t get last week’s email. I’m guessing the, uh, shitty subject line may have gotten caught in some spam filters. Or maybe it was the Gmail outage? Who knows. Please forgive me, and read it right here, right now.
Speaking of last week’s edition, the most-clicked link in it BY FAR was for the $4,600 “field bar” on the Garden & Gun webstore. I feel like I barely know you bougie bastards!
Hard seltzer up 155% in 2020, per the vampire squids over at Goldman Sachs (as reported by Friend of Fingers Jess Infante at Brewbound.) The bank says the bubbles bubble isn’t close to bursting, either, projecting the category at $30B by 2025 (it clocked $4B off-premise this year) Say it with me: everything! is! hard! seltzer! now! Blue White Claw loves Anacott Seltzer…
RIP to October, the beer site borne of a 2017 partnership between Condé Nast’s creative services team and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s start-up arm, ZX Ventures. The site will shut down at the end of December. Solidarity to the writers and editors involved.
This Eater ATL piece about Georgia’s halfway-pregnant alcohol delivery policy revision (from Friend of Fingers Austin L. Ray) was a great example of how byzantine, retrograde, and often-quite-stupid alcohol laws in The South are inflicting damage on small-time beer and booze producers as the pandemic grinds on, sometimes to the benefit of a recalcitrant middle tier. Believe it or not: South Carolina is worse!