“Yes… yes… yes… yes…”

On Dec. 20, 2019, workers at Anchor Brewing Company, a venerable Bay Area icon that brewed its first beer for thirsty San Franciscans nearly four decades before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, gathered in the brewery to ratify their first-ever collective bargaining agreement. It was a union contract years in the making — the product of methodical organizing that began in 2018, followed by a contentious public drive and negotiations that spanned the entire 2019 calendar.

Now, it was up to the rest of the workforce — about 70 employees across the brewery’s production facilities, taproom, and tour guide corps — to sign off on the deal. A worker in white coveralls pulled ballots from a cardboard box jerry-rigged to purpose.

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“Yes… yes… yes…”

All told, 94 percent of eligible Anchor workers voted in favor of the contract that day. The deal was done; Anchor Union had its first contract. It was a monumental moment for the American brewing industry, and particularly the craft beer business within it. After all, though Anchor had been acquired by the Japanese conglomerate Sapporo in 2017, it still holds a revered place in hagiographies of the American craft beer movement. That workers at Anchor had successfully organized a union, won their drive and election, and ratified a contract — and did it all without getting summarily laid off or unceremoniously abandoned for a cheaper labor market elsewhere — was a signal that it could be done in other craft-oriented businesses.

As one Anchor worker told me in the early stages of the 2019 drive: “Young working people will be able to see us and be like, ‘if these fucking drunk guys can do it, like anybody can.”

Can they? To be sure, in the year-plus since Anchor workers gathered in Potrero Hill to ink their inaugural deal, the craft food and beverage industries have seen a spate of organizing. Just a couple months later, in February 2020, 140 workers at San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery & Manufactory went public with their own union drive. As the pandemic took hold, organizing efforts popped up at craft food-service and -production shops across the continent: at Southern California’s Augie’s Coffee locations in June; in Colectivo Coffee’s Chicago locations in August; and at Vancouver’s Turning Point Brewery, owned by Labatt Brewing Company and better known for its Stanley Park brand, in October; and so on.

But while organized labor has made inroads this year with the baristas, distillers, and cheesemongers (et al) that produce the food and drink we love, it has stumbled on the path, too. For a showcase of labor organizing highs and lows in the craft F&B space, look no further than Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

Union drives at Minneapolis distilleries Tattersall (announced July 2020), and Stilheart and Lawless (September) yielded recognition from owners of those shops; as did the push at the city’s Fair State Brewing Cooperative that same month. But drives at Spyhouse Coffee Roasters and the Beer Hall at Surly Brewing Company (both organized with United HERE’s Local 17, which handled the other Twin Cities efforts mentioned here) came up short, victims of the turnover, apathy, and management pressure tactics that so often stop union campaigns in their tracks.

“I think I needed more knowledge,” lamented Taylor Roth, a former Spyhouse barista, speaking with me in November 2020, a few weeks after the drive at the twee chain had been defeated. “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.”

As Roth and other pro-union workers have discovered, that ambiguity can make it difficult to get buy-in from skeptical colleagues, most of whom have joined the workforce in a period of almost unmitigated decline in union density in America. In the hospitality sector, where language barriers, wage theft, and on-the-job harassment (from both customers and colleagues) have fostered a culture of transience, getting coworkers to see upside worth organizing for is especially challenging, with few positive examples to point to.

In December 2020, Anchor Brewing workers celebrated the one-year anniversary of their ratified contract. It’ll remain in force for another two, during which time they’ll begin bargaining for the one that’ll replace it. It’s an ideal moment for Anchor Union members to reflect on how the past year of unionized work went, strategize on what the future holds for organized labor at the storied San Francisco brewery, and evaluate what their union has done for them.

“I probably would be out of a job right now if we didn’t have our union contract,” Blake Dahlstrom, a brewery lab technician and one of Anchor Union’s four shop stewards, says. (Shop stewards are employees who have volunteered to represent the broader workforce to management when issues arise.)

VinePair asked Dahlstrom and her fellow stewards to share their experiences from Year One of Contract One, to learn what unions can — and just as importantly, can’t — do for the production and hospitality workers that produce consumable “craft culture” in this country.

Below are excerpted phone interviews with all four Anchor Union shop stewards. They have been edited, condensed, and organized thematically. Anchor Brewing Company did not respond to repeated requests for interviews with management to provide the company’s perspective for this piece.

1. What has your relationship with the company been like since ratifying the contract last December [2019]?

Blake Dahlstrom, lab technician, 2.5 years at Anchor: The company sees value in the unionization effort. Every single can and bottle that is being produced in 2021 says “Union-made in San Francisco.” Our job as shop stewards is to hold their feet to the fire. If they’re going to brag about the fact that they’re union-made, our job is to make sure that our workers are being treated [with as much care] as the marketing is.

At the end of the day, all I want is for workers to get compensated and treated fairly. I know it’s a hard balancing act on management’s part. … The people who are making decisions are not necessarily on the floor seeing what’s happening. So as shop stewards we have an opportunity to explain to them … that there are tangible solutions.

I’m proud of the fact that we have a positive working relationship with management. It’s not perfect, but it could be worse. But I’m not trying to sugarcoat it; I’m not trying to be friendly with management. I will bring out my fists when I need to bring out my fists. … It’s not there yet. We’re going down every single avenue we possibly can before we get to that option.

Alex Wilson, filtration worker, 5.5 years: As someone who has been at Anchor for a number of years and has seen the situations that led to the push to unionize, I thought that getting everyone voting in favor of the union, making it happen, and negotiating our contracts, was kind of going to be a clean break, and that moving forward, things would be different. Everyone would be able to express the issues we were facing as a workforce, and then we were going to move past that. So the fact that we’re not really past those issues at this point is surprising to me.

This upcoming year, it’s going to be really interesting to see where this relationship between management at Anchor and the union at Anchor goes. With Covid, everything got sidelined and crazy. It’s going to be really interesting to see how much our contract does for us this year.

2. Pay was an issue that you organized around at Anchor. How did you handle pay in the contract, and how has it played out since?

Patrick Machel, packager and bartender, 3 years: When we started [negotiating] the contract, we saw people getting paid really weird rates. So we were like, “Nah, we’re going to have something completely new, a tiered system.” The first tier is the entry tier, like packaging, tour guides, receptionists. … Second tier is a little more in-depth roles, like lab technicians, shift supervisors, specific machine operators. … Tier three is the lead brewers … and tier four is usually the warehouse [workers], like forklift drivers [and] maintenance workers.

There’s a minimum amount [of pay] that everybody in each tier is getting. That way, no one is getting less than that specific number. We wanted to make [pay] more uniform, because before there was no real way to show why [one worker was] getting paid this amount of money, compared to somebody right next to [them.]

Wilson: The raise structure in the contract is staggered, so we got part of our raise this year [2020], and part of it at the beginning of next year [2021]. Then it [will] continue to go up. So I think starting January, [average pay] will have gone up 20 to 25 percent [since the contract went into effect.]

[In a follow-up message, Machel provided more specific figures: The contract provides Anchor’s brewery workers with an across-the-board average raise of 21 percent over three years. For workers at the Public Taps, the bump is 28 percent.]

Robert Salgado, taproom supervisor, 3 years: In my position, I don’t receive tips. So I just get paid an hourly wage. Sometimes, that would be a little discouraging, watching [tipped employees] do less work and make more money. So for me it was more beneficial, because I got a pay raise. … I think it helped out a lot of my coworkers too, because a lot of them were making $15 to 16 an hour. [San Francisco’s minimum wage is $15.] Now they actually have a little bit more money in their pockets. I was making $22 [per hour, before the contract], and then it got raised to $23, and it will be ending at $25 by the end of the contract.

I think it helps. It’s on its way to being enough, With future contracts in the years to come, it will get to being enough. I can say [the pay increase] has made life easier, and more and more attainable.

3. What happened when the pandemic hit? Did the contract’s provisions have an affect on your day-to-day work at Anchor?

Machel: None of us would have a job, I’ll tell you that. We actually did layoffs, but way later [than many other companies in pandemic]. And we bargained with management over that, and actually [won] a pretty decent severance package for everybody [who’d been laid off]. Just having that kind of protection in there [allows us to say], “We’re not gonna back down, we’re gonna get our workers paid.”

Also, half of those people that [were] laid off are working there now because we have something called callback rights, where if you lose a job, and you’re in good standing, you have about two years to get back into that same position before they hire anybody else [if that worker wants to return]. So whenever things started opening back up again and more production was happening, they brought back people based on company seniority through those callback rights.

Dahlstrom: I probably would be out of a job right now if we didn’t have our union contract. It’s been a rough battle because, you know, nobody has a pandemic clause in their contracts. So we’ve had to roll with the punches, work with management, and push where we can push. Our No. 1 thing is we want to make sure our workers are safe, and that they don’t have an onerous workload.

I think the most fascinating news that can be reported is the fact that we had our first and only [pandemic-related] layoff in August: We laid off eight people, almost all of which have either been brought back, or have been offered to be brought back.

Wilson: I continued to work at reduced hours through most of the last number of months, and I recently returned to work full time. There are people who got laid off, for example, and for them, the union contract was a much, much bigger deal, because that situation was [governed] by the contract.

But I mean, there’s no question in my mind that having our contract has been a benefit in every way. There’s no drawback.

4. A typical critique of unions is that they’ll implement a layer of bureaucracy that will hamper innovation and communication. Have you seen that happen at Anchor?

Wilson: Management is now acknowledging that they are bound by the contract in certain ways so they can’t just do anything they want at any time. So in a sense that has improved communication. Now if there is something that’s not going the way it should be, [workers] have a venue to actually express that to management and expect to get a reply. Whereas before, you could complain, but that was gonna fall on deaf ears. That being said, I don’t think that communication has improved to the extent that I had expected that it would.

Having that third party [the ILWU] has only improved things. The company can say “that’s going to make it harder for us to get stuff done, we won’t be able to just come to agreement between the two sides because there’s going to have to be this extra barrier.” But if they were interested in fixing the problems that led to this situation they would have.

Dahlstrom: I think if you asked management, they would say [the union has hindered communication]. But I think the union has offered more solutions than problems for management. The reason why we unionized is because we had X amount of problems for X amount of years, and now with the union, we have a seat at the table. We meet with management every two weeks. There’s been a long-term disconnect between the fourth floor [management], and the first, second, and third floors [production]. That’s been an ongoing issue, and one of the reasons why we unionized. At the end of the day it’s all about communication. And that’s something that we’re fighting for every single day.

5. How much of the gains you’ve made this year do you attribute to your contract, as opposed to the company just being decent?

Machel: We were gearing up to actually open up the bar [when restrictions were lifted in San Francisco], and one of the questions I was bringing up to my manager was, “Are guys going to give us a little bit of backup if we get people that don’t want to wear masks and stuff like that?” She basically was like, “we would much rather our workplace be as strict as possible, so that nobody gets Covid and everybody’s safe, versus getting money from people.”

I want to say that [this] was out of the goodness of their hearts. But in my mind, the contract solidified that — [especially] because we also had a lot of vocal interactions with management. If I worked at another restaurant or another bar that wasn’t unionized, I highly doubt that they would [take those concerns seriously]. They’d be like, “Eh, this is how it is.”

Wilson: The “bureaucracy” that I’m involved in right now is trying to resolve an issue that, if we didn’t have this system in place, wouldn’t get resolved. So [the contract] is just an overall good thing from my perspective.

Salgado: Because we worked hard [on management], we were able to get hazard pay. Anchor wasn’t going to do that naturally, but because we were able to bring it up [to management through the union], we were able to get this because it was in our contract.

We still had to fight with them to get them to [re]hire people. They would try to have a skeleton crew do production on stuff that a normal crew [would be] doing. So because of that, we fought with them: “Look, you need to hire people back, we’re getting complaints from people who are getting way too much of a workload.”

It’s one of those things where they [might] have done it anyway, but we were able to bring it up several times, so they did it before it was too little, too late.

6. What would you tell workers at other craft breweries who are thinking about unionizing?

Dahlstrom: Open up your mind, and be imaginative. You can break the status quo, that’s what that’s what did it for me. If you imagine a world where you can solidify the benefits that you like from your job, whether it’s meal periods, shift beers, “safety doughnuts …” whatever you like about your job you can solidify, and whatever you don’t like you can bargain over and change.

Would you like healthcare? Would you like higher wages? Would you like paid holidays? I mean, when you’re bargaining, you’re gonna have to give up some of those things, but just imagine a world where you could potentially have some of these things.

Salgado: People need to believe in the power of the contract. Believe in the power. For those who believe in it, it does change. If people work hard and they talk to each other, you know, things will change. I think it does work for people who are willing to give a union a shot.

Wilson: It was an unfamiliar situation and we went for it. It’s a learning experience for everyone. But, I mean, frankly, we’re better off now than we were before. I think it was worth it, for sure.

Machel: For a lot of people, this is their first-ever experience with the union, and with this specific union [ILWU Local 6], it’s a little bit hands-off. … It’s mostly based on the workers figuring out what to do next. That can be scary, and it was scary for a lot of us. But we’ve learned through mistakes and victories, and we’re getting better and better at this. And it’s created an even more prideful place of work. It’s created relationships with [coworkers] that would have never happened before. If we have an issue, let’s bring it up. Now, we can actually say something. Instead of just coming to work at a dope company, we’re coming to work at a dope company at a union that we created ourselves.

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