What Does Surly’s Closure Mean for Craft Beer Unions?

September 03, 2020

By Jerard Fagerberg, September 03, 2020

Most of the beer produced in the United States is union-made. 

Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Sam Adams, Leinenkugel, and the dozens of sub-brands that fall under those names are all the product of union shops. That means that the people who make the beer have the benefit of bargaining collectively, through their union, with management for things like better wages, benefits, and workplace conditions.

However, all those brewing companies above are large manufacturers. Most of them predate the current American craft boom, and almost all are represented by unions founded in other manufacturing industries—United Auto Workers, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Teamsters. Because of its relatively small size and the startup costs associated with opening a new brewery, craft brewing has not adopted the tradition of union labor from the industry it sought to disrupt.

On Monday, the front-of-house staff of Minneapolis’ storied Surly Brewing notified management of their intentions to join Unite Here Local 17. Their demands were the same as any collective bargaining unit but the movement was spurred this time by the hazards of reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Natalie Newcomer, a former full-time server at Surly and the head of Unite Surly Workers, the hospitality staff had emailed Omar Ansari and Vice President of Hospitality Operations Dan Dinovis months prior expressing concerns about the brewery’s plan to reopen service. Their response solidified the decision to organize.

“Once we heard what service was going to be like, we sent a letter expressing concerns about safety and pay,” she says. “This jump started the idea of being like, ‘Hey, we actually don't agree with this, can you please listen to us?’, asking in the most respectful way if we could be part of the process. And they basically said, ‘No, we're not changing anything about our plan to reopen, whether it’s in terms of safety or finanically.’”

When Unite Local 17 joined Surly staff to present their demands to management, Newcomer says Ansari and Dinovis refused to recognize the union. Soon after, Surly posted a vague message to its Twitter account saying the company was “working on determining next steps.” Less than two days later, it announced it would be closing its Beer Hall indefinitely, and they sent an email to its estimated 110 front-of-house employees letting them know they were laid off effective November 2.

“It was very cut and dry, no emotion whatsoever, no sympathy,” Newcomer says. “A lot of staff found out first via social media that this was happening to them.”

Unite Here Local 17 has condemned Surly’s reaction as union busting. The brewery claims on its website that it was planning to cease operations “weeks ago,” though employees were only notified on Wednesday when they were given the legally mandated 60-day notice for mass layoffs. When reached for comment, a Surly representative replied with the same statement about working on “next steps.”

Surly’s story is far from over, but it already stands as a cautionary tale. Surly may be the 34th largest brewery in the United States, but it is by far the smallest brewery to attempt organization. Their experience is a sharp contrast to San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co., which joined the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in March 2019. Though management was initially defensive, the union vote passed, and Anchor became the first of its kind in the American craft beer scene.

“I think the whole craft brew industry is really primed for what we’re doing right now,” Anchor employee Garrett Kelly told SF Weekly in 2019. “We’ve already seen an uptick in interest.” Kelly’s optimism became the tone of the beer industry—it was not a matter of if but when.

Coronavirus has surely slowed the rise of unionization in the craft beer industry. With record unemployment and closures in the service industry, job security is at an all-time low, and employees aren’t willing to risk retaliation. But the dangers service staff face during COVID-19 have also brought renewed awareness to the benefits of collective bargaining.

In August, Surly’s Minnesota neighbors Tattersall Distilling and Spyhouse Coffee both signed union cards for Unite Here Local 17. Other solidarity movements in the restaurant industry have sprung up in Austin and Denver. It was Surly’s restaurant and taproom employees who voted to organize, and were ultimately laid off, but Newcomer saw their fight as an open door for the people on the brew floor. After all, service and production are inexorably linked.

“We wanted to get front and back of the house involved, because this is something that is for sure affecting both,” Newcomer says. “This is not a front-of-house issue. This movement was in recognition of how poorly treated both departments have been.”

It’s unclear what will happen next. Surly staff are still expected to show up for the next 59 days, but walkouts are still a possibility. Public solidarity with the affected workers has already mounted on Twitter, which is critical to the success of this and any other organizing movement. The consumers create success for craft breweries, and they have the power to hold them to higher standards.

“We have a lot of people standing by us,” Newcomer says. “People loved coming to Surly because they love the staff and the service that they got. The beer is good, but the service is what makes it amazing.”

Top photo courtesy of Surly Brewing Co. 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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