Organizing Principle — Unionization is a National Story, But Labor Talk is a Whisper at Craft Brewers Conference — Good Beer Hunting

None of CBC’s official conference events or seminars directly address labor unions in beer. That’s not a surprise, given that it’s brewery owners or managers who pay BA membership dues, and that it’s often ownership and management rather than rank-and-file workers who attend CBC. (The BA says data on what it refers to as attendees’ “rep classes”—management, marketing, brewer, etc.—is still in flux leading up to CBC, and thus it cannot provide information about what percentages of overall attendees come from each rep class.)

Anders Bloomquist, a warehouse specialist at Fair State and an organizer with the union Unite Here Local 17, says given those realities, he wouldn’t expect discussions about unionization to take place as part of the official CBC docket. He and other organizers also suspect that workers who do attend CBC may feel constrained by their bosses’ presence there, even if they were interested in exploring what unionization would mean for them and the businesses at which they work. It’s only been within the last couple of years, he says, that there’s been any kind of concerted effort from labor unions to organize workers within the craft brewing industry.

As a result, Fair State and Unite Here 17 don’t have any official pro-labor programming scheduled to coincide with CBC, nor does the Industrial Workers of the World, a UK-based global labor union that has been doing outreach to the brewing industry. On one hand, organizers may appear to be missing a huge opportunity. On the other hand, the chance to loudly and explicitly discuss labor organizing in beer would likely be hindered by the environment at CBC anyway, a place where owners, bosses, and managers dominate. Instead, such communication is likely to happen more quietly.

“Minneapolis is a great city and I know a lot of workers who will be there to revel in CBC, but no IWW organizers will be there this year,” an IWW spokesperson wrote in an email. “As a brewer and organizer, I agree how important Minneapolis is to labor organizing in brewing.”

Unlike labor organizing, the topic of general workplace culture is on the official CBC schedule. This year’s conference will feature a programming umbrella called Thrive, “a CBC experience that fosters safe, inclusive, and equitable cultures where everyone in the craft brewing community can thrive.” This includes training, educational seminars, meet-ups, and workshops.

Two seminars directly address workers:

  • “Stay Modern: Crafting Internal Company Culture” is a discussion between BA president Bob Pease and Modern Times’ CEO Jennifer Briggs, focused on how breweries of all sizes can create safe environments for employees. (Briggs officially took over as CEO of Modern Times in January following the departure of former CEO and founder Jacob McKean, who stepped down after some employees asserted Modern Times fostered a hostile work environment. In recent months, Modern Times has clost four taproomslaid off 73 employees, and is currently in financial receivership.)

  • “The Burden of Burnout: Where to Start to Combat and Prevent It,” led by DJ Enga, a financial wellness services manager and employee assistance program consultant, and Katie Muggli, founder and executive director of Infinite Ingredient, a nonprofit focused on the well -being of craft beverage employees.

Bloomquist is glad to see working conditions addressed at CBC, but he’s skeptical that these panels will focus on the demands that are most salient to actual workers: better pay, better benefits, and a greater voice for workers in setting company policy. A 2021 YMCA WorkWell poll of 2,000 working adults found that the most important thing employees say would support their mental health is a reduced workload, followed by paid mental health days they can actually use and more flexible work options. Bloomquist says platitudes like “positive company culture” can obscure a drive for more tangible changes.

“When we talk about it in a very abstract manner, I think we’d all say, ‘Sure that sounds good,'” he says. “But when the conversation starts to move to people’s paychecks, suddenly it’s a very different conversation.”

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