USA: Craft beer becomes unionized

San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co, one of the oldest breweries in America and a pioneer in craft brewing, is now pioneering the industry again on its way to unionize the craft beer business.

So far it was an unwritten law that management and workers of a craft brewery work together in a familiar atmosphere. Therefore it was no need for workers to unionize and to fight for worker’s rights. As the industry matures, business grows bigger and the founding generation gives up the lead or sells the business to groups and conglomerates, the old rule becomes increasingly obsolete.

Anchor Brewing, founded in 1896 in San Francisco, is probably the best example of this development. The brewery, which produced about 130,000 barrels (153,000 hl) of beer per year in 2018, survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the prohibition from 1920 until 1933 and even a near-bankruptcy after the Second World War. It was saved in 1965 by Frederick Maytag III (called “Fritz”), a heir to the washing machine company with the same name. In a time when the word craft brewing was not invented, Maytag created the first brewery of this type which served as a role model for all the other breweries to come.

The first disruption occurred, when Maytag sold the business in 2010 to private investors Keith Greggor and his partner Tony Foglio, who had major expansion plans at San Francisco’s Pier 48. The investment did never materialize because of structural work for seismic upgrades of the aged pier, which could have costed easily up to $25 million, even before construction of the brewery itself.

Seven years later, in August 2017, the brewery was sold again to Japan’s Sapporo Holdings (, 4.8.2017). Although Sapporo did not immediately change the business model, minor changes occurred which alienated the staff from its company. For example, Sapporo took away the so-called ‘beer privilege’, which was the workers’ sacrosanct practice of drinking an allotment of free beer between shifts.

At Anchor Brewing many employees work only part-time and are not permitted to work more than 29 hours per week because the company would be otherwise required to offer workers benefits at 30 hours a week under the Affordable Care Act. This makes it hard for those people to pay for their living, especially in a city like San Francisco.

On a national level, “average weekly wages in breweries decreased 25 percent over the 2006–16 period,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the huge increase in the number of craft breweries in this period it can be assumed that smaller breweries tend to pay less than bigger ones which are mostly unionized.

Although one of the most prominent midsize breweries, Anchor Brewing would not be the first brewery in this segment to be a union house.  Boston Beer Company’s Cincinnati production facility, Lagunitas’ Chicago operation and August Schell’s Minnesota brewery are already unionized.

Anchor Brewing employs approximately 160 people total, including white-collar workers. There are about 70 full- and part-time employees in the bargaining unit, which are organized with the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union (ILWU), with help from the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“We’re proud to be Anchor, and we want Anchor to provide good jobs again. Anchor is a San Francisco tradition. It used to be one of its best places to work—and it can be again,” Anchor’s organizing committee wrote in a letter to Anchor Brewing /Sapporo USA. “Anchor workers should be paid enough to live in San Francisco. We’re struggling to survive and raise our families.”

In yesterday’s letter the workers also asked the management to recognize the union. If Anchor’s management does not respond within 48 hours and refuses to recognize the bargaining unit, they’ll file with the national labor relations board and hold an election in the next four to six weeks.

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