22 September 2023

Workers at Elysian brewery have unionised

USA | There are not many unionised workplaces among American craft breweries, which makes the move by Elysian’ employees all the more remarkable. In August, 33 workers at Elysian’s Seattle production brewery voted to join Teamsters Local 117.

They seek to improve working conditions and bargain for better wages. At the same time, they hope that the nearly 190,000 craft brewery employees in the US will take heart and follow their example.

Elysian was bought by AB-InBev in 2015. One curious aspect of the American brewing industry is that many of the large breweries, that produce AB-InBev’s best-selling beers, are unionised.

Even August Busch III, a former CEO of Anheuser-Busch, was a member of the Teamsters union when he was a brewery apprentice. However, craft breweries, whether corporate or independent, are generally non-union.

Encountering many obstacles along the way

Efforts usually flounder because the process of unionisation is rigged to wear applicants down. When San Francisco’s Anchor brewery unionised in 2019 to bargain for better wages and benefits in a notoriously expensive city, it had to overcome major opposition from management and the owner, Japan’s Sapporo. Incidentally, in Japan, Sapporo’s employees are unionised.

Same at AB-InBev-owned craft breweries. Employees at Chicago’s Goose Island brewery, which has been fully-owned by AB-InBev since 2011, tried to unionise in 2020, but failed because of an “aggressive anti-union campaign from management”, according to the Chicago Tribune newspaper, followed by the pandemic lockdowns.

Earlier this year, workers at Widmer Brothers in Portland, Oregon, voted to unionise. According to Northwest Labor Press, the 2020 acquisition of the brewery by AB-InBev was a driving factor. Recently, Widmer was sold to cannabis firm Tilray.

What workers are fighting for

At Elysian, employees were reportedly unhappy with their career prospects under a system that tied raises to promotions. “In order to get a raise, you have to get promoted,” a former Elysian employee who was active in the union campaign, told the Seattle Times newspaper. “And there’s not a lot of avenues for promotion. So we wanted to come together and try to change that and make sure people can have the career path and the financial means to sustain that career.” Like San Francisco, Seattle has become an expensive place to live in.

The union vote covers only workers at the brewery. It does not apply to taproom employees, according to the Seattle Times.

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