Arise, Surly workers

Inside the mid-pandemic union-busting campaign at Minneapolis' popular brewery restaurant

Editor’s note: A version of the piece below originally appeared in the newsletter Welcome To Hell World. Big thanks to Hell World editor Luke O’Neil for helping me amplify the voices of Surly’s workers. I pay for an annual subscription and you should too, so subscribe to Welcome To Hell World now if you haven’t already.
If you’ve already read this story on Hell World, here are some other Fingers pieces you might be interested in:
Bud Light Seltzer’s no good, very bad job
Who’s got the bar tab Venmo?
Hire me, White Claw
Gentrivitalization by brewery
Alright, that’s quite enough of that, let’s get to it.
Some weirdly prescient wall art in Surly’s Beer Hall, imho!!! Photo: Isabelle Rolfes

There’s never a good time to find out you’re getting fired but being in a video-chat therapy session, like Lou Olson was, is a particularly shitty one if you ask me. 

“My phone was next to me, and one of one of my friends texted me, and was like ‘Surly just fired everybody.’”

On Monday, Olson and their fellow co-workers from both the front- and the back-of-house at Surly Brewing Company’s beloved Minneapolis Beer Hall waited in the parking lot of their workplace for over an hour to tell the brewery’s owner that they’d decided to unionize. On Wednesday, they got an email saying they’d all be out of a job come November, when the company would be “indefinitely” closing the facility due to what it claimed in a statement were losses resulting from the coronavirus pandemic—but definitely not the just-announced union drive, no siree. 

“My therapist was like, ‘Oh, what's wrong, like something's on your face,” Olson told me in a recent phone interview. “I was trying to text with [my friend] while also telling her what was happening.” It took them a phone call to Surly’s HR department, a voicemail, a follow-up call, and a correction to the company’s employee database before Olson finally saw the email that had their newly organized colleagues reaching out to one another so frantically.

Artisanally anti-labor

If you don’t know much about craft beer, the brazenly anti-labor move might shock you. It’s more or less true that craft beer emerged as a community-oriented counterpoint to the bland lagers and zero-sum business models of Big Beer (though for whatever it’s worth, the macros, like Budweiser and Miller and so forth, are mostly union shops at this point anyway.) 

But these days craft brewing is a massive industry in its own right, with billions in annual revenue and trade-group lobbyists attuned more to the pro-business acolytes who celebrate craft breweries’ ability to gentrify “dying” neighborhoods than a customer base increasingly disenfranchised and disenchanted with the misogyny, racism, and general fuckery amongst some of the 8,000-ish American breweries that they represent.

And here’s the thing: no matter how “cool” it seems to work in a brewery (or outgrowth businesses like Surly’s Beer Hall, which we’ll return to in a moment), those jobs, generally speaking, aren’t exempt from all the bad stuff that can make jobs shitty in other fields. Low wages, no benefits, grueling hours, and sex-pest managers aren’t uncommon. Craft beer has basically the same warts you’ll find on the underbelly of any major American industry. 

“There are all sorts of great reasons why we should feel good about craft beer production… but to celebrate it while neglecting labor conditions is highly problematic,” Margaret Gray, an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University, told me back in 2018 for a story for Splinter (RIP) about why craft brewing is able to paper over this disconnect.

In the few instances where workers in the craft brewing industry have seen through the charade and decided “lol this sucks, let’s organize,” owners have dropped the #oneteamonedream pretense with the quickness. It happened at Rogue Ales in Newport, OR in 2011; and again at Pyramid’s Berkeley, CA brewpub in 2013; and in 2019 in San Francisco, where workers at Anchor Brewing, the country’s oldest craft brewery faced a decidedly corporate union-busting campaign that featured high-powered anti-labor law firms and managers shouting “fake news” at workers exercising their federally protected right to unionize. Very cool shit, nice work all around.

“Don’t be a dick”

But back to 2020, and the former industrial park-turned-destination in east Minneapolis that Surly has called home since about five years ago. In the Beer Hall, a bold mural depicting stein-hoisting, Soviet-style proletarian types greets visitors with a call to arms: “Arise, Surly Nation” (This bears more than passing similarity to the marketing materials at Rogue Ales; blue-collar veneration apparently plays well with the rank-and-file drinking public. It’s almost like.... supporting workers is a cool idea that a lot of people agree with and maybe you should just do that… but hey, what do I know.) 

It’s all part of Surly’s larger brand: “Give a damn about your community. Be independent. Don't be a dick.” On its website, the 14-year old brewery celebrates itself as “Leading Minnesota Forward,” and to be fair, in some respects, it has, helping to change Minnesota’s laws to allow for own-premise sales, and organizing funding drives and employee volunteerism through a popular in-house program

In other respects, it has not, like the time it opted to pay $2.5 million to settle a tip-pooling class-action suit brought by 140 of its servers and bartenders, who alleged the company was using mandatory pooling to keep its own payroll costs lower. (Surly claimed “no malice was intended” on that one.) Workers say following that payout, the company revoked benefits for many of them and began scheduling more workers below the 30-hour per week federal threshold that would make them eligible for those benefits. Don’t be a dick, indeed!

“Don’t settle. Get Surly.” is basically a ready-made union slogan lololol. Source

Despite all that, Surly is an undeniable leader in Minnesota hospitality, and a relatively high-profile brewery in the national craft beer scene, and that was a big deal to some workers. “It’s a very noteworthy place to be hired at,” said Natalie Newcomer, a front-of-house employee at Surly’s Beer Hall for two and a half years. “When I first got hired here, I couldn’t even believe that I got to work there.”

Surly’s Bar & Grill

But Newcomer, like other new hires, grew skeptical of Surly ownership’s commitment to the brand’s lofty ideals, movement rhetoric, and benevolent posture after spending some time on the job. 

Nick Mjones, who has worked in the front-of-house at the Beer Hall for four years, watched with despair as benefits were taken away from his coworkers following the tip-pooling settlement. A manager told Olson to be less difficult after a customer called them a bitch. Andy Magill, a pizza maker in the Beer Hall’s upstairs restaurant who has worked there for a little over a year, became frustrated that his Spanish-speaking colleagues in the back-of-house had no real way to communicate with managers after the one semi-fluent chef willing to relay their concerns left. 

Exasperated workers took to calling the place “Surly’s Bar & Grill” as they watched this supposed celebration of craft labor and pioneering spirit reshaped into a commodity experience where turning tables is the only goal and human-resources professionals walked around saying “cool beans.” 

“I think as the brand grew and Omar [Ansari, Surly’s owner] made more money, I think he kind of lost sight of what really made his brand, which was the employees,” said Magill. Ansari did not answer my request for an interview. 

The pandemic only made things worse at Surly, exacerbating the underlying conditions while also layering in more tense customers, new service models, and more pressure to pack in crowds. “When I came back to work, sometime in June, I was like ‘this is insanely horrible,’” said Isabelle Rolfes, a service captain at the Beer Hall. “It was just like they were using the excuse of COVID-19 to push through this service model that would create a lot more money, [use] a lot less labor, and put a lot more of us in danger.” 

The relationship between managers and workers deteriorated apace. After receiving a $2-5 million PPP loan in April, Mjones told me some managers at the Beer Hall took to telling workers not to complain because “you’re just getting paid by the government right now anyway.” Without warning, the bosses got rid of tips and implemented a 15% service charge, which front-of-house workers say took money out of their pockets. The brewery’s website claims this money goes to “paying our hospitality staff a more equitable wage and offering benefits for full-time employees,” but given the way they manipulate the schedule to keep workers from being full-time, this amounts to “lying to the public,” scoffed Newcomer.

The back of house, irate after learning about the service charge through the grapevine, was offered tiny raises (like $0.25-$1.00, lol) to make good, said Rofles.]In a less organized shop, it might have been a wedge issue that would pit front-of-house against back-, but “we knew that’s what they were going to try to do,” she said. Because Beer Hall workers had been organizing wall-to-wall the paltry increase only pissed everyone off more. “They expected us to just kind of shut up and be happy about it.,” said Rolfes. 

“Once this all started happening for us to reopen, people were dropping like flies because they either couldn't afford their lives anymore with this pay structure, or they realized that they were going to be a busser all of a sudden when they were a career bartender for five years,” said Newcomer. “So now they’re just hiring more people so that they can have more people work fewer hours,” driving down the quality of service while keeping more workers ineligible for health benefits. 

Workers who stayed saw team meetings get contentious, then stop entirely. Workers say director of hospitality Dan DiNovis grilled them about their activities outside of work, monitoring their social media accounts for evidence that they were not social distancing. Meanwhile, Rolfes said, Ansari “walks around the Beer Hall without a mask.”

Arise, Surly workers

Bad conditions for workers, though, are good conditions for organizing. “I think it kind of boiled up to this point, and I think the pandemic just kind of accelerated” the union drive, said Magill.  Then, in August, after receiving a promotion to service captain and being brought back in the first wave of workers to reengineer the Beer Hall’s service model for reopening, DiNovis abruptly fired Natalie Newcomer. He did not respond to my request for an interview. 

Whether it was for organizing (“I was pretty involved in it, at that point”), or being spotted by DiNovis at a pro-restaurant worker rally in a local park (“he was definitely there to spy, to see if any of his staff attended”), or simply for speaking out as a senior staffer against what she viewed as was an unsafe effort from DiNovis and Ansari to “get as many people as possible” into the Beer Hall to goose sales, or all of the above, is hard to say. 

Much easier to say is how it made her fellow workers feel: targeted for organizing. “To see Natalie get fired under the guise of her job performance going down, that’s just bullshit,” said Rolfes. “Imagine giving your blood, sweat, and tears… and then they fire you because they’re afraid of you.” 

“We had to take action after that, very soon, so we could [make sure] they wouldn’t get away with that,” she added. 

So on Monday, after marshaling what Rolfes and other organizers claim is an “unquestionable” and “vast” majority of signed union cards from the bargaining unit of 100-ish, pro-union employees gathered outside Surly, asking the bosses to come outside, hear their reasons for organizing, and recognize their right to bargain collectively on the spot. 

It went… uh, not great. “That was one of the most disgusting [instances of] lack of care I’ve ever seen,” said Mjones. I interviewed five workers present that day, and all tell more or less the same story: Ansari and DiNovis stayed inside the building for an hour or more, apparently trying to either pretend they weren’t there, or wait out their employees. When the two did eventually come out, Mjones said, “they scoffed and laughed at us” and declined to accept literature from the Unite Here! Local 17 rep about how companies can voluntarily recognize unions.

“For them to try to silence us like that, it was pretty disgusting,” agreed Magill. “It showed [their] true colors.” 

That evening, the brewery’s official Instagram account posted a notice acknowledging the drive. “We’re working to determine next steps in the process,” it read, which is weird because there are really only two options, and one of them is union-busting—something that simply doesn’t seem very compatible with Surly’s marketing, community focus, and don’t-be-a-dick mission!

“The timing of this announcement is not ideal”

And yet, by Wednesday morning, the bosses had made their decision, and union-busting was apparently it. They were shutting down the Beer Hall, and the hundred-plus newly organized jobs it represented, “indefinitely” starting November 2. Here’s how they put it in the release, which also claimed an 82% decrease in Beer Hall revenues compared to last year, and a potential $750,000 loss if the facility stayed open through the winter:

We ran all the numbers. We looked at all the possibilities. But try as we might to find a way to keep the doors open and our team employed, the writing was on the wall: There was no longer a way forward for the Beer Hall. 

[...]

The timing of this announcement is not ideal. On Monday, some hospitality employees notified us of their intent to unionize. We respect their decision to turn to an outside organization for representation and will continue the dialogue. That does not change the fact that our plans to close the Beer Hall were put in place weeks ago with the announcement planned for this week.

Look, I’m not the CFO over there, but the company’s claim that this was all because of the pandemic and was TOTALLY COINCIDENTAL to the union drive announcement 36 hour prior stinks for three reasons: 

  1. Of course revenues are down compared to last year, because we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic! Using a year-over-year comparison for restaurant sales between 2019 and 2020 as a way to demonstrate a business’ lack of viability isn’t massaging the data to tell the story you want so much as repeatedly clobbering it with a blunt object until it surrenders. 

  2. On the other hand, while the Beer hall might be losing money, the actual brewery is not. “They excitedly told us throughout the pandemic that [beer] sales have never been higher,” Newcomer told me. My pal Kate Bernot at Good Beer Hunting reported that by August 2020, the brewery had already matched its grocery store sales for all of 2019. In the last 12 weeks, it’s up 47%, or $600,000, compared to the same period last year.

  3. Workers say that as recently as Monday, Beer Hall managers were interviewing people for new roles, and that the company has hired as many as 10 new employees in the past month or so. (Again, this may be to guard against giving any worker enough hours to make them eligible for health benefits, a move Wal-Mart and other rapacious multinationals are quite fond of!) 

“They truly think their employees are stupid, and that we don’t know anything and we’ll never fact-check,” said Mjones. “But we know when we're being bullshitted.”

Bullshit or not, though, Surly’s workers are on borrowed time for now. The ones I spoke to seem intent on using the intervening months between now and the November 2 shutdown to push through the union and secure recognition, regardless of the bosses’ efforts to pull the plug. 

“At this point I just, I want to win the election, and I want to fight for what's right,” added Magill. “It's about just showing that he [Ansari] can't stomp all over us.” 

Working at Surly has given Olson anxiety about saying the wrong thing, but they've nevertheless found their voice in this process. They drafted a form letter, and through its social media feeds the union has been promoting it as a way for supporters to write to DiNovis and Ansari telling them to cut the shit and recognize the union. 

“I’m definitely going to ride it out and stand in solidarity with my friends,” Olson told me. As for getting a new job in a historically awful recession: “I’m not really letting myself think about that until like, October.”

But Surly management appears to be focused on the more immediate future. By week’s end, a note had gone up on its website announcing the Beer Hall would be closed September 7—Labor Day. 

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