On "taking back" breweries

At Boulevard Brewing Co. and beyond, collective action can do what HR investigations and bias trainings never will

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Fingers design department sent this to me 4hrs after deadline with the subject line “HR you kidding me?!” I can’t work like this, you guys.

A big, bad beer industry story is spilling out into the open in Kansas City, Missouri, and the city’s heretofore-beloved Boulevard Brewing Company is at the center of it. Earlier this week, an anonymous reddit post on the popular industry subreddit /r/thebrewery went viral with allegations that unnamed male employees at the popular Midwestern brewery had harassed female colleagues and subordinates for years. The post, though anonymous, is both detailed and distressing, with claims including:

  • A boss demanding to know if female employees were pregnant, and mocking one worker by saying “the only way you could be pregnant is by your cat.”

  • Another male worker “following [female workers] to their cars, trying to give them notes or gifts, sending them multiple emails…” and being permitted to keep his job.

  • A hiring manager rejecting female brewing applicants in favor of unqualified male applicants; he reportedly told the poster “he wouldn’t hire women because they are lazy.”

And so on, and so forth. The allegations went viral enough in both the KC and broader craft beer internets that Boulevard felt compelled to address it with a vague release on January 25th. It included some familiar lines about taking harassment seriously and learning/growing from this situation, and promised to form a female-led task force “to fully empower the women of Boulevard.” But it also claimed that an internal investigation had “clearly established that there was no harassment or discrimination.”

Naturally this non-apology made a lot of people very mad, so a day later, on Jan. 26, the company tried again, this time offering an actual apology, admitting “that harassment did in fact occur [and that] we have… serious issues that we have failed to address.” In the statement, the company committed to an independent investigation from “a third-party human resources firm… with full access to all our people and all our records,” and said it had fired an unnamed executive over this issue. (The Kansas City Star later identified the exec as the company’s CFO.)

HR is for the bosses

A lot has already been reported on this situation (my confusingly not-kin colleague Jessica Infante at Brewbound had a couple good items on it, as did Brock Wilbur & Savannah Hawley at KC’s The Pitch), with presumably more to come. I don’t have reportage to add, but I do have some analysis. Are you ready for it? Here it is:

If the initial, anonymous reddit post is credible—and judging by the brewery’ ham-fisted reaction and high-level exits, it seems at least plausible that it is—then what we’re dealing with here is not only a few misogynistic troglodytes and a culture that enabled/celebrated their bigotry, but also some absolutely classic corporate protectionism in the form of the human resources department.

Consider the poster’s account of how Boulevard HR reacted. From the post (emphasis mine throughout):

I was asked to come up with solutions to help fix [boss/alleged harasser’s] bad behavior. When I acted on these, I was called anti social. It was made clear that I was the problem for not handling it better. They had asked me in my interview if I could handle working with men, so it was my problem.

And:

One of [alleged sexual harasser’s] victims quit because after continued harassment, HR told her they had done “everything they could”. He was eventually allowed to “retire early”. The company threw him a party. He was not stopped from harassing his victims at future events held at the brewery.

And, succinctly:

The consistent factor in these stories is who the company punished. If you fuck up, you are forgiven. If you report misbehavior, you are punished.

In a follow-up Instagram post, one of the victims (who says she was outed without her consent by the initial poster, which is pretty awful in its own right), describes more of the same: an HR department that seemed more intent on deflection than actual corrective action.

I don’t know a thing about Boulevard or its human resources team, but broadly speaking, the notion that HR departments would leave workers twisting in the wind in situations like this is hardly surprising. Because: if you work for a boss for a living (in a brewery, or literally any kind of workplace anywhere in this country) HR is not your friend. HR does not care about you. HR will lend you a shoulder to cry on, then shank you in the ribs. Workers can’t trust HR; even HR people know this!

This is my opinion, but also pretty much fact. As the corporate repository for all manner of good-faith 9-to-5-ers, incompetent careerists, and frighteningly cheery benefits wizards, human resources departments vary widely in effectiveness. But one thing is true across the entire spectrum: HR exists to serve your company’s best interests, not yours. And though “[o]ccasionally that mission might align with friendliness,” as TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton put it in 2018, at its core, HR is simply “an important component of a company’s legal strategy to document and mitigate any potential lawsuits that might arise from its employees.”

It’s there, in other words, to protect and project the power of capital from the demands of labor. (In fact, another term for “human resources” is “human capital,” which is refreshingly transparent, if absolutely ghastly!) Labor’s interests may seem to match those of capital from time to time, but they do not, will not, and cannot in the long run.

So when a company admits that their own HR department overlooked a workplace issue, and its solution is to hire another HR team to make things right, be skeptical that things will work out in labor’s favor. This is like cops hiring other cops to investigate how they’ve been copping—which is, of course, how we handle law-enforcement “reform” in this country, and look how well that’s going!

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To anticipate the obvious critique: I’m sure there are nice HR people, and nice cops, and I’m sure both are capable of serving useful functions to their respective workplaces—which is to say, they are capable of doing the jobs they’re nominally being paid for. Congrats! But also: who cares?! To drone on about the individuated morality of “good people in a bad system” is a distraction from the bad system itself. If you’re interested in making work better, safer, and more equitable in this nightmare country, your adversary is capital. And believe me, capital is absolutely delighted to hear you focus on some maybe-benevolent workers operating its inequity-producing machinery, rather than the machinery itself. So uh… don’t do that!

No workers, no beer

Back to KC. Maybe stuff will work out at Boulevard. But if it does, it’ll be because workers spoke up, then more workers the community angry enough that doing nothing posed the company a bigger risk than doing something. The second press release, the conciliatory one, came out the same day The Pitch’s Wilbur & Hawley reported that:

[C]urrent employees are threatening a mass departure if the situation is not handled more adequately, as they feel they can no longer work at a professional institution that would publically [sic] portray itself so poorly. As one current worker says, “99% of the staff is furious with the statement, which was written by one high-level member of the company. They’ll need to do better immediately, or they risk losing everyone.”

To state the obvious: it’s not very easy to run a brewery without brewery workers. Boulevard brass is smart enough to that replacing its specialized workforce en masse, would cost serious time and money, especially given all this negative press about working there. (And even if they’re not, the honchos at Duvel Moortgat, the Belgian macrobrewer that bought the company in 2013, probably are.)

Once the specter of a worker walk-off entered the chat, things started moving faster in KC. By Wednesday evening, Boulevard’s president and a marketing executive had resigned, and a reddit account that reportedly represents “a coalition of more than 100 employees from across every division” had posted an open letter to reddit claiming credit for the departures.

That statement read in part (emphasis mine):

After years of begrudgingly trudging through a toxic culture and harmful work environment created and cultivated by certain members of our executive team, we finally have had enough. WE are the ones who make this brewery run, and we have become tired of being overruled, bullied, ignored, and utterly misrepresented by inept and insensitive “leaders". Their lack of accountability and awful missteps this week were the last straw - so today, we raised our voices and our voices were heard.

[…]

Going forward, we - as a collective - will insist on and accept nothing less than maintaining a brewery culture where employees are heard, misconduct is not tolerated or brushed aside, and we return to operating in the best interest of ALL Boulevardians, not just those at the top of the food chain.

The people have spoken. And we promise to stay loud when it comes to doing what's right. We're taking our brewery back.

Phew. Mealy-mouthed corporate-speak, that ain’t. Like I said, there’s still a lot to shake out here. The brewery employees haven’t made any concrete, future-looking demands for improving workplace equity and safety yet, and it isn’t clear whether they’ve built—or are in the process of building—the organizational infrastructure in place to sustain pressure on ownership longterm. (Boulevard workers past & present—get in touch!)

But even with those questions outstanding, the situation in KC is shaping up to be a lesson with applications far beyond the craft brewing industry.

To wit: when a workforce comes together to credibly threaten the bottom line—either through wildcat stoppages, union organizing, community boycotts, or whatever—owners will acquiesce to their demands for equitable treatment. That’s the power of labor, and frankly, HR could never.

REMINDER: The Fingers tip line is always open. If you work at Boulevard, have horror stories about HR at another brewery/distillery/etc. or have other info to share: dave@dinfontay.com.


The bottom shelf

  • Michelob Ultra, the Anheuser-Busch InBev active-lifestyle juggernaut that spent 2020 waking up every morning, admiring its sleek profile in a full-length beveled-edge mirror from Restoration Hardware, and muttering confidently to itself “hard seltzer who, motherfucker?” is now… well, folks, it’s now available as a hard seltzer. Remember the Fingers motto: Everything is hard seltzer now. Brewbound’s Infante has the details on the nationwide release. I’ll limit my commentary to this text exchange with a Friend of Fingers who recently encountered Michelob Ultra Organic Hard Seltzer in the supermarket (because where else, amirite?!) Ahem:

  • American Airlines is selling wine now. Wow, these “unprecedented times” have truly “changed everything” but not really because even though I’m stuck on the ground I still have no interest in paying through the nose for room-temperature Sutter Home blends that’ll be late to depart, late to arrive, and probably spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on asphalt somewhere in between. *Please read the next line in your worst Jerry Seinfeld voice* “What’s the deal with airline wine?!”

  • Good Beer Hunting’s Kate Bernot is out with a big report on Island Brands, a beer company sort-of based in Charleston, South Carolina (which, for all you new Friends of Fingers, is also home to boozeletter HQ.) I say “sort-of” because while the firm calls the Lowcountry home—and expertly markets its straightforward lagers and hard teas/lemonades as drinkable extensions of the Charleston lifestyle—those products are contract-brewed by New Belgium at out-of-state facilities. You may care that it’s not quite “local,” but drinkers across seven states don’t seem to: Island Brands has been posting eye-popping sales and growth figures this year. Anyway, Bernot was kind enough to ask your fearless Fingers editor to offer a Charleston-based perspective on the brand’s whole “thing.” Check out her story for smart reporting (Kate) and flailing, outdated pop culture references (me.)

  • In rebrand news, Anchor Brewing, the venerable San Francisco outfit that’s been putting out beer since like four decades before the Golden Gate Bridge was even a bridge, has gotten a #millennial makeover. NYC heads may find the new lewk reminiscent of Montauk Brewing Co.’s packaging c. 2016-ish. I was reminded of a slightly, ah, different brand…

  • Man, how ‘bout this GameStop situation? I have very little to say about it because I do not understand options trading. But I will point out that /r/wallstreetbets embraces the same shitposting vernacular and edgelord/cringepost tendencies that dominated /r/weekendgunnit, a now-defunct guns-rights forum where White Claw reigned supreme. So uh… maybe that’s bad news, or maybe it’s nothing! Stay safe out there, everyone.

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