What can craft beer workers do about bad brewery bosses?

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Mikkeller, a Danish brewery with American outposts and taste-making prominence in the global craft beer industry, has come under heavy fire over the past few months for its dismal response to sexual harassment and workplace discrimination allegations spanning back years. Things came to a head last week as activists successfully pressured more than two dozen breweries to withdraw from Mikkeller’s prestigious, invitation-only beer festival. My colleague (and Friend of Fingers!) Kate Bernot has been all over this story for Good Beer Hunting; read her latest report evaluating the sincerity of the company’s newly reconciliatory posture.

The Mikkeller episode is the latest shockwave to ripple out from craft brewing’s May 2021 reckoning over women and nonbinary workers’ often-awful experiences in the industry. Watching it unfold in real time has me once again wondering:

What can craft beer workers do about bad brewery bosses? And maybe more importantly: what should they do?

If you have thoughts on this, I hope you’ll join me in the comments below. All are welcome, whether you work in the industry, or just like drinking beer and have perspective on combating workplace discrimination and harassment.

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I should note that this isn’t the first time I’ve pondered this question. Back in May, with years of backlogged allegations against abusive craft brewery bosses pouring forth from Brienne Allan’s Instagram account, I wrote a column for VinePair about the moment’s ripeness for worker-led collective action. With workers at a few breweries withholding their labor over reports of their bosses’ transgressions, I imagined what those stoppages could portend for the future of worker power in the traditionally non-union craft beer business:

When workers are truly organized, when they truly control production, they have leverage over a firm’s profits. That’s the ballgame. There are plenty of bad bosses in craft beer who don’t care about women’s safety and wellbeing; there are none who don’t care about money.

Fast forward five months. There has been no massive wave of labor organizing in the craft brewing industry, which is not surprising. Until the Mikkeller flare-up, things seemed to have mostly returned to status quo, even despite activists (including Allan) launching an organization, Brave Noise, with the hopes of turning the momentum from May into a sustained movement.

The work of holding brewers accountable to their promises to “do better” has largely fallen on these advocates, some of whom—rightly, I think—have argued that victims of abuse shouldn’t be the ones required to confront and social-media shame those who would otherwise consort with alleged abusers. (This thread, from writer Robin LeBlanc, sums the sentiments up pretty well.) I agree: I don’t think it’s a fair, efficient, or terribly productive way to pursue change. But who else can do this work, and with what leverage? Absent answers to those questions, the social media shame-game is how accountability is meted out in the craft brewing business (and most other businesses, for that matter.) The outcomes have been a real mixed bag.

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For a vision of alternative, worker-led accountability, I reached out to Anders Bloomquist, a warehouse specialist at Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As Fingers reported last month, the Twin Cities’ craft beverage workforce has emerged as a hotbed for unionism in the fractured industry, with Fair State’s successful union drive helping to build momentum for what has turned into a years-long tear of labor organizing at the metro’s distilleries, breweries, and coffee shops.

Fair State was slated to go to Mikkeller’s festival, but as activists drew attention to the Danish brewer’s inaction on its workplace issues, it pulled out of the event. I asked Bloomquist what role the union had in making this decision. Here’s what he told me (emphasis mine):

We had a big company wide conference call on Tuesday where a significant percentage of both management & union employees expressed their thoughts. I don't think a single union member expressed anything other than the need for us to decline our invitation […] I'm very convinced that this level of debate was at least in part a response to the fact that company leadership knows they need to be cognizant of the collective opinion that is always being cultivated among union members, and I know that our unified opposition to attending played a role in the final decision.

You could argue that Fair State never should have agreed to go to Mikkeller’s festival in the first place, and should not get points for withdrawing. Maybe so. But that sort of scorekeeping is a lot less interesting to me than the internal mechanics Bloomquist described, and the fact that he was comfortable describing them to a reporter at all. (A lot of this sort of in-house stuff stays unacknowledged when workers worry about retaliation from their bosses for speaking to the press.)

Both are outcomes of a healthy, democratic, worker-led union. When employees are organized, they’re empowered to speak their minds, and exercise leverage—their labor—to make sure their bosses listen. And for intractable, shop-floor problems like workplace abuse, which often go unreported, unacknowledged by HR, or curiously undiscovered by “independent” third-party investigations, no one is better positioned for the day-in, day-out work of holding the bosses accountable than workers themselves.

This does not mean that unions always get everything exactly right, or that they are irreproachable bastions of progressivism. This shit is way messier than that. But having reported on these issues for years, I am increasingly convinced that if the craft brewing industry is going to successfully rid itself of the warts checkering its underbelly, workers will have to lead the way. To do that, they’ll need power, and as the old labor anthem goes: there is power in a union.

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That’s my take. But everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What’s yours? Do you think labor organizing can serve as an effective counterweight to the craft brewing industry’s workplace ills? Are you optimistic that top-down change (in the form of manager trainings, workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, etc.) will deliver more meaningful results? If you work in the industry, I’d love to hear your perspective. And if you don’t: I’d love to hear what you think of all this, and how much it matters to you when deciding which breweries to patronize. See you in the comments.