In a historic effort, Anchor Brewing employees in San Francisco voted for recognition of the first labor union in the American craft brewing industry on March 13, 2019. This is a development which should send a clear message to all craft beer workers, including the roughly 2000 employees of Maine’s 135+ breweries. That message is – you can make a difference if you stick up for each other.
Most American macro-breweries have been union shops for many years, and as a result of worker organization, historic strikes, and a strong union culture, their employees enjoy healthy benefits packages and living wages far beyond what most craft breweries provide.
By contrast, craft brewery employees have been left far behind. According to the Maine Brewers’ Guild – a trade organization representing most Maine brewery owners – the average salary of brewery workers at our largest local breweries in 2017 was only $29,789 per year – hardly a living wage. This was actually a stark decline from 2016, when the average salary at these same breweries was $37,789. At smaller breweries, the average salary was an appalling $22,981.
Not only are we seeing Maine brewery workers who are shockingly underpaid – the clear trend is that they are actually making less money every year. In fact, this trend holds true far beyond the borders of Maine – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, US craft brewery workers’ wages declined by 25% from 2006-2016.
Meanwhile, the owners of some of our largest craft breweries, who sell their beer all over the country and even internationally, seem to be doing very well for themselves. The Maine Brewers’ Guild boasts that craft breweries contribute $260 million to the economy – but it is abundantly clear that some few are getting a large share of the profits while most struggle to make ends meet. For an industry which boasts of its community involvement and “buy local” philosophy, it seems that these employers have an ethical blind spot when it comes to fair treatment of their own employees.
There is no reason to think that this trend will correct itself until Maine craft brewery workers organize and fight for their fair share. Indeed, that is the only way working people have ever improved their conditions. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The Anchor Struggle
The Anchor Brewing campaign began in December of 2017, when a single worker, IWW member Garrett Kelly, began having conversations with his fellow workers on the shop floor about unionizing.
Anchor had been bought out by Tokyo-based Sapporo Holdings in 2017, and quickly moved to reduce wages, decrease contributions to employees health insurance, cut sick time in half, and eliminate a perk in which employees had been getting free beer at the end of their shift. Employees like Kelly were naturally upset at these changes.
Looking for assistance, FW Kelly reached out to the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). With help from the DSA, he convened a meeting with a small group of his co-workers, who then became the organizing committee and nucleus of the campaign. “From there,” San Francisco DSA organizer Evan McLaughlin told Southern Maine IWW, “we held regular committee meetings to go over the list of coworkers, who we could confirm as being supportive of the effort, who we needed to reach out to, and who we needed to recruit to the committee. We made the decision that we would not go forward with signing union cards until we could confirm at least 65% support from the workers.”
Over the next year, this group of workers began meeting regularly and discreetly building support for the union campaign among their co-workers, with the goal of reaching that 65% in order to file for a union election. But their organization and struggle yielded results even before their campaign went public.
FW Kelly told SMIWW, “So we had a minor electrical fire one week before we were originally supposed to hold our vote that shut down production for a number of days. Workers were told to clock out and go home with no idea when they would be able to come back to work. After reaching out to a number of workers our organizing committee drafted a letter to management demanding pay for the lost hours. A few days later management agreed to cover all lost wages for employees affected by the fire. This was huge because our workers struggle as it is and a few days of lost wages would be catastrophic. I’m completely convinced that the only reason workers were paid was due to management seeing the level to which we were organized and able to mobilize our workers and the community in support of our campaign. It’s impossible to overstate just how helpful the support of the community, local politicians, the San Francisco DSA, and media were in applying pressure on management, but when it came down to organizing on the shop floor it came down 100% to the workers.”
Management, of course, were not cooperative. They tried some of the usual dirty tricks, but solidarity between workers on the shop floor won out in the end. FW McLaughlin told us, “The company hired an anti-union lawyer and rolled out some common anti-union tactics: captive audience meetings, lying or saying misleading things about how dues work, implying that there’s a secret set of union rules that you have to follow or you’ll be fired, claiming that workers will have their wages frozen for multiple years, claiming tipped workers will be forced to share tips with non-tipped workers, etc. They tried a little bit of red-baiting “you know the people that started this are socialists, right?” but it didn’t really stick.”
Maine Beer Workers – You Are Not Alone
You are in the best of company. Southern Maine IWW has your backs, and can help with any organizing campaigns. Other labor and political organizations will help you too, you have only to ask. Your communities believe in you and support you. But most of all, your 2000 fellow beer workers in Maine are a force to be reckoned with. Organize your brewery, and you will be able to negotiate for better pay and benefits, and better working conditions on the shop floor. Organize all the breweries, and the workers will be in a position to take control of the industry and reorganize it to improve the material conditions of every single beer worker, without the bosses skimming most of the profits off the top. Maine does not need more low wage jobs, more industries coming in and setting up, barely paying enough to keep some of their employees off public assistance, in an endless race to the bottom to keep their margins high on the backs of the workers. Maine needs industries which work for the workers.
All this starts with you, as beer workers, deciding, like Garrett Kelly did, that it’s time to make a stand. Whether you take that step is on you. Whether industry wages continue to decline, and bosses continue to leech off the Maine economy for their own profit, or we turn this situation around together through solidarity – that’s on you.