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Time for craft brewery workers to organize

Unionization can open new opportunities for negotiating dignity, safety, and justice for brewery workers countrywide

LabourFood and AgricultureSocial Movements

Kim Sturdavant, brewmaster at the now-defunct Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco. Photo from Facebook.

Over the past four months, the craft brewing industry has been rocked by revelations of systemic and pervasive sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination. Thousands of anonymous accounts of such incidents have been shared widely via social media, most notably by Brienne Allan in the United States, Siobhan Buchanan in the United Kingdom, and Fanny Wandel in Denmark. Over the course of several weeks, these women, all of whom have worked or still work in the craft brewing industry, anonymously reposted stories shared with them via direct message after Allan shared her experiences with sexist contractors and asked her followers to share their own stories. Some of the stories are isolated incidents, but many expose patterns of toxic behaviour corroborated by several independent accounts. The sheer volume of such stories reveals a deep and pernicious culture of dominance and abuse within the craft brewing industry.

While certain individuals within Canada’s craft brewing industry have been called out for sexual harassment and discrimination, overall there have been fewer allegations against Canadian brewery workers and owners. This is not, however, because the industry in Canada is more progressive or has fewer problems but because of its relatively nascent state. As the Canadian craft brewing industry continues its exponential growth, more abuse will occur and more stories will come to light. These stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination must be a rallying cry for brewery workers to begin to shift the balance of power through collective action.

Call to action

While responses to these allegations have included the termination or resignation of the accused or a renewed vow to institute and enforce new policies and codes of conduct, there is also a growing awareness that the way forward requires some form of collective organization and action. Embolden Act Advance has emerged in the US to keep pressure on breweries by providing an anonymous platform for reporting incidents of abuse, harassment, and discrimination. In the UK, the survivors group Punks With Purpose was created by current and former employees of BrewDog, an international chain of pubs and breweries, to force the company to “tackle toxic workplace culture head-on, by promoting positive action.”

These stories have received mainstream media attention (from the CBC, the BBC, Bon Appétit, and NPR) but coverage has steered away from reporting accurately on the labour-related demands made by some of these organizations. For example, a recent BBC article discusses Punks With Purpose briefly in the context of the broader “reckoning” happening in the UK brewing industry but makes no mention of the demand that brewery workers have trade union membership. This is all the more troubling given that the organization’s primary mission is to see “BrewDog employees unionised and protected from future harms.”

The BBC article instead advocates for an updating of “corporate governance measures,” presumably some form of top-down self-regulation implemented and enforced by the company. This would mean, of course, the very kind of self-governance already in practice within the industry that has allowed harassment, discrimination, and abuse to proliferate.

In the UK, the survivors group Punks With Purpose was created by current and former employees of BrewDog, an international chain of pubs and breweries, to force the company to “tackle toxic workplace culture head-on, by promoting positive action.” Photo courtesy BrewDog.

Positions of power

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of allegations of abuse have been levelled against people, largely men, in positions of authority (owners, managers, head brewers). This makes the emphasis placed upon corporate governance reform (including the suggestion that the breweries themselves develop and carry out more suitable policies and practices) particularly concerning. In situations where breweries choose to undertake such reforms themselves, new policies or procedures to address worker safety and discrimination would presumably be created and carried out by the same individuals, or group of individuals, that perpetrated the crimes in the first place.

Many of the individuals who came forward with stories claim to have reported incidents to human resources staff to no effect and, in some cases, faced retaliation as a result. It is well understood that the primary function of human resources is to protect the interests of the employer and to mitigate any potential liability with respect to any instances of sexual harassment, abuse, or discrimination.

Further, laws already exist that protect all workers from abuse, harassment, and discrimination as well as from retribution for reporting such instances (such as the Human Rights Code of Ontario, Part I). Such laws, however, are rarely enforced effectively to protect workers, as evidenced, for just one example, by wage theft, rampant and mostly unresolved, in the restaurant industry. In regard to such problems, it is the very individuals—the employers, whether in the persons of management or human resources officers, whose duty it is to enforce these laws and to protect their workers’ rights—who are violating the law. Why is it acceptable that the individuals in violation of these rights should dictate the terms of employment? How can we trust them to create a safe, just, and dignified working environment?

How did it get so bad?

In articles covering allegations of systemic and pervasive sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination in the craft brewing industry, much of the focus has been on the rampant spread of a culture of toxic masculinity. This is undeniably true.

But it is also necessary to understand that the workplace cultures that encourage toxic masculinity, quietly or explicitly, have emerged in a context of weakened or virtually non-existent labour protections. Brewing industry workers have effectively no representation or institutional power over the development and delivery of company policies that form the background for the broader workplace culture. While toxic masculinity may indeed be the proximate cause of many or most of these instances of harassment, abuse, and discrimination, it is also arguably a symptom of a more systemic pathology which enables a culture that disregards standing laws against discrimination (during hiring and in the course of employment) and feeds off of the precarity of workers. Worker precarity fuels the culture of toxic masculinity by creating a workforce in which individuals are isolated, afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation, and unwilling to challenge problematic workplace norms for fear of alienation or blacklisting.

While most of the stories shared have occurred at craft breweries or industry events in the US, the UK, and continental Europe, Canada has not been without incident. Several of these accounts of abuse were shared by Canadian brewery workers, revealing a toxic workplace culture that mirrors the situation across the border. Some of Canadian incidents have been collected and shared by NotOurP49, a group formed by current and former Parallel 49 brewery workers in response to ongoing harassment, abuse, and discrimination at the hands of owners and managers of the Vancouver Brewery.

In Canada, the industry has grown significantly over the past two decades, from 163 breweries in 2001 to a current tally of more than 1,200 breweries across the country, with 13,486 individuals reported to be working at Canadian craft breweries in 2018. In Ontario alone, employment in breweries tripled during the past decade, to 5,800 workers by 2020. Yet despite this industry’s impressive employment numbers, virtually none of its personnel have union representation.

As the industry continues to grow, the systemic nature of the culture that allows and in some cases encourages abuse to occur is likely to remain unchallenged. The industry in Canada is small relative to its counterparts in the US and Europe, but that is changing quickly. Such rapid growth within a trendy market has meant that workers are often attracted by the image of a thriving, youthful, exciting workplace populated by individuals motivated by passion over profit. Enticed by the prospect of a creative and fulfilling career, many in the craft brewing industry have left other sectors to work for significantly less compensation and job security.

Such a scenario may quickly become one in which workers are exploited through poor compensation, outright contract violations, workplace harassment and abuse, a lack of safety and protection from workplace hazards (including drunk and belligerent patrons), and discrimination against minorities and vulnerable populations. There’s always someone looking to break into the industry, and workers are easily replaced if they cause too much “trouble.” Indeed, the engine of growth in this industry has been fuelled by the exploitation of such precarious workers.

Labour protections and worker benefits have not grown in step with the industry as a whole. This is due, at least in part—likely in the greatest part—to the absence of any unified organization representing the interests of individuals working in the industry. These underlying conditions help fuel a sense of precarity which is the fundamental barrier to collective organizing and solidarity among workers. Indeed, with some exceptions, there has been little discussion of the need for collective action and broad worker representation within the industry as a whole. This needs to change.

In 2019, employees at Anchor Brewing Company voted to approve a three-year contract with parent company Sapporo Holdings. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 6, negotiated the contract with the brewery, marking the first time in its 123-year history that its employees have been unionized. Photo courtesy the Democratic Socialists of America.

Time to organize

It is imperative that the sacrifices of courageous women like Brienne Allan, Siobhan Buchanan, and Fanny Wandel, who have given a platform to stories of harassment, discrimination, and abuse, yield lasting consequences for the craft brewing industry. This can only be assured through collective action orchestrated by worker-led labour organizations. Indeed, the strongest remedy to the sense of precarity highlighted above is collective organization, through which support and solidarity can develop and provide a foundation for dismantling cultures of oppression.

There is currently no labour union representing the interests of all workers in the Canadian craft brewing industry. Without such a broader worker-run organization, it falls to workers to organize and unionize within their local breweries. Such small-scale organization is a step in the right direction, and one or two breweries have taken this route, but it does not displace the need for a broader coalition among workers countrywide.

Of course, as organizations representing the collective will of their members, labour organizations and unions have the capacity to be more or less effective at addressing harassment, a variability often linked to the organization’s internal dynamics and leadership mandate. It is well documented that unions whose membership is predominantly male may be less supportive of anti-harassment campaigns. As such, labour organizations must be constituted to reflect the diversity of the industry’s workforce if they are to effectively address its many issues. Additionally, because labour organizations are not beholden to the interests of shareholders, investors, or owners, they are more readily able to reorient their goals and redirect pressure to address their members’ concerns. This creates a flexible and dynamic organization that forms the basis for a worker-led shift in dominant social norms within the workplace.

Reshaping workplace culture

Undeniably, the threat of discipline or punishment for violating company policy can be effective at preventing harassment and discrimination, but only when such policy is actively enforced. On the other hand, collective solidarity among workers against harassment can help to shift the norms of workplace culture by encouraging workers to support and be accountable to one another. As in most industries, craft brewery workers significantly outnumber management, creating a greater opportunity to establish lasting changes to workplace culture to make it more just, equitable, and dignified.

Whether or not the policies exist to encourage a specific kind of company culture, that culture is shaped, at least in part, by the workers themselves and how they engage with the mandates of management (and, of course, whether management actually enforces them). Bad actors who know that they will face few or no consequences for their behaviour will continue to behave however they see fit. People in power violate workplace safety policies and codes of conduct (and sometimes even the law) because they are not accountable to anyone. In the industry’s current labour situation, it is only in these short-lived moments, wherein stories of abuse gain traction through spontaneous publicity campaigns, that accountability to the general public—and the consumer—emerges. Breweries lose money from bad press. Responses to allegations of abuse, harassment, or discrimination are determined according to the relative threat to the profitability of the company, not for the sake of worker protection.

Yet, although cases of abuse are pervasive and perpetual, the individual occurrences and the publicity campaigns carried out in response are ephemeral. It is imperative that the impetus created by the public response to the sharing of allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination builds into an enduring movement that extends beyond the current moment. The possibility for a necessary shift away from a toxic workplace culture comes from the increased support and solidarity that a labour organization or union can provide. By establishing worker organizations that adopt anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, workers are encouraged to look out for one another and create a more hospitable working environment that can help prevent these issues from occurring in the first place. And when such abuses occur, support from other workers can encourage individuals to report the incident, force the company to take the necessary steps to address it, and protect those who speak up from retaliation by the employer or the accused.

Just as the owner holds a significant financial stake in the brewery, the brewery’s workers hold a material stake in the workplace. Workers invest their labour and their passion, and often sacrifice much of their personal life because they believe in their work. Many ongoing projects in breweries outlast the individuals who incubated and developed them. In a very real sense the workers, too, hold a significant stake in the breweries. As such, this stake must be acknowledged and adequately represented within the workplace. Through the establishment of labour organizations in the craft beer industry, there is an opportunity to renegotiate the dynamics of power in the industry and place greater power in the hands of its workers to create a safe, just, and dignified working environment for everyone.

John Jenkinson is a brewer and organizer for the Craft Brewery Workers’ Alliance of Canada. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Western University.


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