On Brewing: Anchor unionizes in San Francisco; blip or harbinger?

By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Apr 03, 2019

Brewing & Distilling Food & Beverage

On March 13, about 60 employees at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco voted to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) by a roughly two-to-one margin.

No longer a craft brewery by Brewers Association standards following a 2017 acquisition by Sapporo Holdings, Anchor is nonetheless a craft icon and its unionization has undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows.

Jon Ezell, a packaging technician who has worked at Anchor since 2017, says it's "a positive step to remedy things that have not been so desirable about the jobs," exacerbated by a 3.5 percent spike in cost of living in the Bay Area from February 2018 to February 2019.

Since Sapporo bought Anchor, starting pay for new hires dropped as sick leave and other benefits saw similar cuts. "A lot of of people thought their pay was stagnant," says Ezell. "They were stuck at the same pay rate for a few years."

He adds, "There was a lot of miscommunication, a lot of hazy gray areas. A union could help solve that."

Ezell moved back to his native U.S. in 2014 after 20 years living overseas in China and other countries. A longtime homebrewer, he wanted to get into brewing as a career. "I had read about the craft brewing industry [in the U.S.], but to see how much it had taken off was amazing," he says. "People are so passionate about beer and the industry, they'll just blindly take a job," he notes. "That lends itself to not having the best practices."

There are often growing pains associated with bringing on investors. "As things get big and more corporate, shareholders start calling the shots, and that's when you run into problems," says Ezell.

He points out a conundrum in craft: "As craft moves into larger-scale production, they're getting to the size of the macro breweries. [Macro breweries] are all unionized."

"In craft breweries, there hasn't been much interest or movement in trying to unionize," says Agustin Ramirez, lead organizer in Northern California for ILWU. "For the ILWU, this is the first brewery."

Ramirez points out that Pyramid Brewing shut down a Berkeley facility and pulled production back to Seattle in the face of unionization in 2013. "Anchor wasn't able to do this because they have so much invested in San Francisco," he notes. "Anchor and San Francisco are synonymous. You think of San Francisco, you think of Anchor Steam."

But Ramirez says the craft beer boom hasn't been a big win for workers. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows a downward trend in wages at breweries: From 2006 to 2016, average weekly wages fell from $1,293 to $969, a 25 percent drop, as the labor market for the broader beverage industry remained relatively stable.

Growth often brings with it more emphasis on the bottom line, and craft breweries aren't exempt. "When they get corporatized, benefits get cut," says Ramirez. "All of these little things [at Anchor] amounted to them thinking to keep what they have and maybe secure a little more was through joining together and speaking in one voice."

The union will form committees in early April and conduct a survey to identify priorities. "We've got to get prepared to come to the table," says Ramirez.

"This place is known to be the birthplace of the craft beer industry," he adds. "We are hopeful on the union side that this is the birthplace of the craft beer union movement."

Noting that the ILWU is active in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii, he adds, "There's plenty of breweries to unionize in this area."

The head brewer at Renegade Brewing in Denver, Jack Meyer has also worked at craft breweries in Indiana. Meyer says his experience has led him to question how some salary scales are developed. "At the breweries I've worked at, I was paid based on what I would accept, not what I am worth," he says. "I've definitely been paid less than sales folks, administrative folks, when what I was doing was the core of the company."

Meyer says he thinks unionization "in general would be a good thing" in the craft brewing industry. "I think more transparency about who gets paid what and why is good for any employee, especially in craft brewing," says Meyer, adding, "The owners get what they pay for. Making beer is easy and making great beer is really hard."

Eric Peterson is editor of BreweryWeek and CompanyWeek. Reach him at rambleusa@gmail.com.