The new owners of San Francisco’s historic Anchor Brewing Co. probably didn’t foresee the current state of things when they got rid of a free beer perk for employees.
Workers at the iconic brewery, which produced the first domestic India pale ale, are on the verge of a vote that could establish one of the first unions at a craft brewery in the U.S. They’ve said this past week that the end of the privilege to drink a free beer at lunch or between shifts was one among a number of other, more serious cuts to their benefits that motivated the organizing drive.
The workers joined with employees at a company-owned bar across the street to petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold a unionization vote after the company declined to voluntarily recognize the International Longshore and Warehouse Union as their representative. “We’re working together to make sure that the people who make Anchor can survive and raise our families in the Bay Area,” Jon Ezell, an organizing committee member and bottling worker at Anchor, told Bloomberg Law in a Feb. 27 e-mail.
Members of the committee are now accusing the company of union-busting, saying Anchor broke a promise to “remain neutral” by requiring workers to attend so-called captive audience meetings where management advocated against unionization.
“We’re disappointed that Anchor management has decided to listen to anti-union lawyers [rather] than stay neutral,” Ezell said.
Meetings pushing for a “union-free” workplace are a common response from employers facing organizing drives. But the move could nonetheless strain relations between the company and its workforce.
Anchor generally denied the allegations in a Feb. 26 e-mail to Bloomberg Law, saying it’s been “working collaboratively” with the union “from the beginning of this process.”
“Furthermore, we have said from the very beginning of this process that we hope a decision on unionization will be based on neutral and objective facts,” a spokesperson said. “We held information sessions for those employees who were already at work” and all the information presented “has been supported by documentary evidence for the employees’ own review and inspection.”
Ezell told Bloomberg Law that the organizing committee “did not receive any documentary evidence to back up management’s claims.”
The NLRB scheduled the brewery workers’ vote for March 6. An election for Anchor Public Taps workers was scheduled for March 8 but has been moved to March 15 at the company’s request, according to attorney Nicole Teixeira of Leonard Carder LLP. Teixeira represents the employees.
Anchor Brewing was founded in 1896, and its “steam” beers have become an iconic brand in California’s Bay Area and around the country. The company was bought out in 2017 by Japanese-owned brewery Sapporo Breweries Ltd.
Wages and benefits have decreased since then, including significant cuts to sick leave, according to some of the workers. They announced the drive on Feb. 7.
There’s some union presence in the facilities of large breweries like Anheuser-Busch, but unions are largely absent in microbreweries—a much faster-growing sector of the market.
Teixera and Agustin Ramirez, lead organizer for the ILWU in Northern California, took a tone suggesting there’s less congeniality in the unionization process than Anchor’s statement did.
“We went in and gave the company a letter asking them to recognize a union and they did not give us a response, which is in essence a ‘no,’” Ramirez said.
According to Ezell, workers in the brew-pub were also “told by their managers to remove pro-union pins” that were previously allowed. The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to review an appeals court case where a company was found to have violated labor laws by banning pro-union pins.
Ramirez said the group remains optimistic that they have the numbers to win the elections.
“We feel that the workers know what’s best for them—that’s why the vast majority of workers from both groups signed authorization cards—and we feel they will vote to have an opportunity to be at the table to determine their future.”
The company’s statement noted that the NLRB agreed to postpone the second election for the brew-pub workers until March 15.
“Anchor Brewing Company will respect the results of the upcoming vote by our employees,” the spokesperson said.