One of the World's Most Iconic Craft Breweries Is Unionizing

Photo: Getty

Workers at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company have announced a drive to gain union recognition on Thursday, according to members of the organizing committee. If successful, the maker of the iconic Anchor Steam beer will be one of the first craft breweries in the country to become a union shop, and the most significant.

Read the union’s letter to management in full at the bottom of this post.

There are approximately 70 full- and part-time employees in the bargaining unit, spread across the Anchor’s production facility in the Potrero Hill neighborhood and its taproom, Anchor Public Taps, across the street. The brewery employs approximately 160 people total, including white-collar workers, according to a 2016 report in trade publication Brewbound. Workers are organizing with the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union, with help from the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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A representative answering the main number listed for Sapporo USA (the American subsidiary of the Japanese brewing conglomerate that purchased Anchor for $85 million in 2017) referred comments to Anchor Brewing Company. An Anchor spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

“Anchor is a San Francisco institution that used to be known for being a good job,” Brace Belden, a part-time worker in the Anchor racking room who has worked at the brewery for a year and is a member of the 8-person organizing committee, told Splinter. “We want to make the company an attractive place to work again.” The ILWU declined to say what percentage of the bargaining unit had signed union cards.

The union drive at Anchor (which began its public phase at 12 p.m. Pacific Time today, when an ILWU organizer presented the company with the union’s letter of declaration) is freighted with significance for both the beer industry and the labor movement nationwide. In May 2018, Splinter reported that none of the country’s 7,000 craft breweries were unionized despite difficult working conditions and low pay. A handful of previous efforts to organize other craft breweries have failed (including one at the Bay Area’s now-defunct Pyramid Brewing Co. outpost). Just by organizing, Anchor workers have nudged the $26 billion US craft brewing industry into uncharted waters.

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But beyond being one of the first, Anchor is also by far the most prominent craft brewery to attempt a union drive. Founded in 1896, Anchor is considered by many experts to be the birthplace of craft brewing, thanks in part to its reinvention in the ‘60s and ‘70s under the leadership of Fritz Maytag, who purchased the company in 1965.

Organizers say they want to unionize in part to protect Anchor’s special legacy. “The reason I took this job is because I love Anchor Brewery. All the major events in San Francisco, Anchor was always a part of it,” Denny Miller, a part-time employee who leads tours of the historic brewery, told Splinter. He said preserving Anchor’s Bay Area identity within its new owner’s international portfolio was “almost 100%” of his motivation for supporting the drive.

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Sapporo’s integrated 2017 report to shareholders noted that “Anchor’s strong brand power… is expected to generate further synergies and accelerate the growth of the [Sapporo’s] US business.” Anchor employees worry that those “synergies” might include brewing the venerable Anchor Steam—so innately San Franciscan that former mayor Ed Lee heralded the beer’s 50th anniversary with an official “Steam Beer Week” in 2015—somewhere else.

While workers say that Sapporo didn’t immediately change Anchor’s culture upon acquiring the brewery, signs of corporatization have recently appeared. “It’s a hot shop right now because they just took away our beer privilege,” said Miller, referring to workers’ sacrosanct practice of drinking an allotment of free beer between shifts. “This is just the beginning,” he continued. “If we don’t organize and show some unity there, who knows what they’re going to do next.”

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One thing that Sapporo can’t cut back too much on is wages. They’re already pretty low. Workers on the organizing committee say they have have struggled to make ends meet given San Francisco’s record cost-of-living, and that some Anchor employees work at California’s $15/hour minimum wage.

“I’m doing worse at 29 than I was doing at 19, but I work more hours per week because I work at two other jobs,” Belden said. He said he earns $16.50/hour to work in the racking room, and isn’t permitted to work more than 29 hours per week. (Employers of Anchor’s size are required to offer workers benefits at 30 hours a week under the Affordable Care Act. Belden said he is not eligible for benefits through the brewery.) Miller holds another part-time job and runs his own small business in addition to his part-time job at the brewery, which he says pays $17.25/hour. “That’s living in San Francisco these days,” he said.

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The Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco
Photo: Getty

The “starvation wages,” as Miller calls them, are particularly frustrating to workers given the company’s stated goal of burnishing its reputation as San Francisco’s beer. “It’s not right for a company to want to claim that branding and that identity of San Francisco, yet at the same time create conditions that don’t allow their workers to survive [in the city],” Garrett Kelly, a brewer who has worked at Anchor for three years, told Splinter. As a full-time employee, he makes $18.35/hour and is eligible for health benefits.

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Cesar Ibarra, a fermentation department worker who has been at Anchor for eight years, said he had to move out of San Francisco to make ends meet. “It’s very had to survive with my pay, especially with [the] cost-of-living always getting higher and higher in San Francisco,” he told Splinter in a text message. Ibarra said he makes “[$]21 and change” per hour and receives benefits through the company, though he noted that Anchor had stopped contributing to workers’ 401ks. He now commutes over an hour to work from the Fairfield, CA, area, where he is raising a one-year old. “Now that I have an infant, it’s a lot more challenging,” he said.

“There’s not a lot of good manufacturing jobs that a person can get in San Francisco, and those jobs should be union,” Belden, who is a native of the city, said. Workers complain of weeks-long stretches without days off and a newly reduced amount of sick leave as other factors for organizing. They say the glamor of working at the iconic San Francisco brewery is no substitute for quality of life. “People are tired of being fed the line that, ‘oh, you know, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life,’” said Kelly, describing the caveat that has dogged labor organizing in popular industries like craft brewing. “The reality is, it’s still work.” (“It’s really difficult to pay rent with my deep love of beer,” Belden quipped.)

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San Francisco provides a dramatic socioeconomic backdrop, but Anchor’s union drive may have implications far beyond the Bay Area. The drive comes at a precipitous moment for the country’s craft brewing industry. Growth is cooling as drinkers opt for spirits, wine, or even temperance. 7,000 small, independent breweries across the country—the most since before Prohibition—must compete aggressively with one another and breweries owned by powerful conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch InBev for the all-important “share of throat.”

As the U.S. beer market shrinks and the craft segment tightens, workers at those breweries—135,000 of them, according to the Brewers Association—have faced challenges ranging from spotty health benefits to inconsistent safety standards. Nationally, “average weekly wages in breweries decreased 25 percent over the 2006–16 period,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS doesn’t differentiate between brewers at craft breweries and macrobreweries, and a spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents about 5,000 production workers at the latter, told Splinter that its members’ salaries had not reflected that downward trend.

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Taken together, those factors suggest the slide in wages corresponded to the massive increase in small breweries in that 10-year stretch—from under 1,500 to over 5,400, according to the Brewers Association. (As of October 2018, the BA counted 7,082 craft breweries in the country.)

But it’s not just that tiny mom-and-pop shops have struggled to pay their employees. Prominent, popular craft breweries have been known to squeeze labor in order to grow in a challenging market, as was the case in November 2018 when Massachusetts’ Trillium Brewing Co. reduced its employees pre-tip wages to $5 from $8. (The brewery later reversed course in the face of widespread condemnation on social media and a report from the Boston Globe.)

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Anchor’s union drive will unfold in the middle of all of this. The brewery produces around 130,000 barrels annually, making it a mid-sized regional brewer outside the top-50 highest producers in the country, but as a subsidiary of Sapporo USA, Anchor is not considered a craft brewery by the Brewers Association. (“Craft” has no legal definition, and there’s lots of debate within the industry about which breweries are and are not craft.) Regardless, its workers’ demands—from more transparency from ownership, to higher wages and benefits, to better working conditions—mirror practically all of the craft brewing industry’s ongoing growing pains.

Anchor workers interviewed for this piece expressed enthusiasm for the drive, and are optimistic for Sapporo’s forthcoming reaction. “If they said yes, we want to work with our workers because we believe in the working man of America, imagine what kind of a commercial” that would be for the brewery in its left-leaning home market, hypothesized Miller.

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Still, it’s unclear how the holding company will approach a new organizing effort at an American subsidiary. In 2017, brewers at one of the company’s Canadian holdings went on strike as contract negotiations stalled. (The sides reached an agreement after a month, and the strike was called off.)

Agustin Ramirez, a lead organizer with the ILWU, told Splinter he is hopeful that Anchor’s drive will inspire workers at other craft breweries to organize their shops as well. “If we are successful and able to, to deliver, with the support of the workers, a good contract, that is always an example of the road that others can follow,” he said.

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Belden, a former musician and self-proclaimed socialist who made headlines when he flew to Syria to fight ISIS alongside a Kurdish militia in fall 2016, expressed a similar sentiment a different way. “Young working people will be able to see us and be like, ‘if these fucking drunk guys can do it, like anybody can,’” he said.


Letter from Anchor employees:

February 7, 2019

We represent the Organizing Committee of our union at Anchor Brewing Company/Sapporo USA (ABC-SUSA) San Francisco. We are writing to request that you formally recognize our union, the ILWU.

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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 workers should be paid enough to live in San Francisco. We’re struggling to survive and raise our families. The work we do is exhausting—and we have to keep moving farther away and driving longer to survive. We deserve a chance to be #anchoredinsf too.

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Anchor management should remain neutral and not interfere with our right to form a union. San Francisco is a union-friendly town that respects working families, not union busters.

With our union we will work to create a work place that is collaborative and supportive while setting high standards for quality product, quality benefits and good wages.

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We hope and trust that Anchor Brewing Company-Sapporo USA will respect our decision to form our union and recognize us. If Anchor Brewing Company refuses to recognize our union and collectively bargain with us we will file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. If Anchor Brewing Company insists on this process, then we call on Anchor to be a lawful and respectful employer without resorting to intimidation or coercion. This includes:

• Threatening to close our facility, limit our shifts;

• Promising promotions, raises or other benefits as a means to bargain individually;

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• Having corporate or local management—including supervisors/managers- question us about our union support, activities or any other behavior that attempts to discourage us from participating in our organization;

• Bringing in outside management or consultants to “educate” us or intimidate us about our decision to participate in our union.

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We thank you for your time and attention and look forward to working with Anchor Brewing – Sapporo USA’s management team in creating a more robust, collaborative and quality brewery.


Dave Infante is a freelance journalist based in Charleston, South Carolina. Follow him on Twitter @dinfontay.

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Correction, 12:25 p.m. ET, 2/8/19: This post initially said that Anchor will be the “first craft brewery” to unionize. There are at least two other craft breweries in the country that are unionized, though the specifics of their labor situations are very different from Anchor’s.

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