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Why unionize in a pandemic? Twin Cities workers explain

Advocates, employers and workers explain context behind the renewed wave of organized labor
Spyhouse Coffee

As businesses gradually re-opened amid loosened COVID-19 restrictions in Minnesota, a growing number of restaurants and service workplaces in recent months have launched public campaigns to unionize, marking a renewed wave of organized labor in the Twin Cities.

A series of firsts has been established: In July, Tattersall employees made waves in the local restaurant community when they voted to unionize, making it the first craft distillery to do so in the country. In September, Fair State Brewing Cooperative became the country’s first microbrewery to unionize. In the case of Fair State, as well as Minneapolis distilleries Lawless and Stillheart, ownership made the generally rare decision to voluntarily recognize the unions, rather than requiring an election among employees first.

The list of organized workplaces has expanded beyond the hospitality industry. In late September, Minnesota Public Radio’s music stations The Current and MPR Classical announced plans to unionize, as well as the Walker Art Center.

While some workers, like those at Fair State, saw their union recognized immediately by management, others have faced a struggle. In perhaps the most public case, Surly Brewing announced plans to indefinitely close this fall, just after employees announced their intentions to unionize. While the company said this was part of their plans before the unionizing announcement, the timing prompted claims of “union busting” from employees. The election to form a union, as required by the employer, fell short last week by a single vote.

With myriad industries across the country struggling in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the main questions posed by critics is: “why now?” Others have asked, with unionizing often involving an uphill battle, why go through the trouble when you could try to find another job?

To help answer these questions, BMTN talked to some workers and business owners. Below are excerpts from the interviews, lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Eli Edelson-Stein, lead organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Center

The Minnesota chapter of the nearly two-decades-old, non-union organization Restaurant Opportunities Center started about five years ago during the workers’ campaign for $15 minimum wage. Edleson-Stein has over a decade of experience in this field, and now works as a lead organizer with ROC, where they advocate for hospitality workers.

Pre-COVID, we were just under 10% of the private sector workforce…. I think it’s like 14 million workers. And we account for [a large portion] of wage theft reports to the Department of Labor. In our industry, workers often don't know their rights, and it’s not because they’re ignorant, it’s because bosses don't want them to.

For the first time in my life, I think we’re seeing both a union [Local 17] that’s willing to take on fights in our industry, as well as conditions that have clearly shown the collective precarity of the workers in our industry.

The Tattersall campaign and the successful recognition of the union was unprecedented in our industry. I think that we can expect that this is going to set off a chain of events here, where workers understand we actually can have a union, and even if not a formal union, we can build power together.

As restaurants have reopened, we’ve seen bosses really use it as an opportunity to only bring back their favorites, or like mass firing, and telling people to reapply for their jobs. We’ve seen places decrease wages throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen institutionalization of service charges and removal of tips. And these are all things that have been the agenda of the owning-class business owners, especially the large ones, who have sort of the biggest influence on the market and the standards that we work in. We’re seeing bosses taking an opportunity to do those things that come at a price for workers.

I think what we’ve been doing for a while is planting the seeds. I think the incredible moment that we’re in is incredible not just for the opportunity for workers to realize that we are actually really powerful … [but also] incredible for the amount of uncertainty and suffering that has been happening for workers right now.

So I think part of the context is that, in my life, certainly I don't know of a time when an entire industry of employment was cut in a day. I also want to name the uprising around George Floyd’s murder. The same system of policing that murders black and brown folks in the streets is the same one that is designed to protect capital and businesses, and workers are part of that struggle. And the evictions that have been frozen right now, but are sort of constantly looming as a threat, affect workers. Most of our membership are renters, and as people lose income, and landlords won't back down or — the governor won’t cancel rent, those things affect workers. I think that workers organizing is part of an ecosystem of broader movement of work. So I think we’re in a moment, I think our work has planted some seeds, I think the unionization of Tattersall is really active, that union has something to do with it. I think there’s a big wakeup call for everyone in our industry that things need to change and if they’re going to change for the better, it’s not going to be because the Minnesota Restaurant Association becomes a benevolent force. It’s not going to happen. It’s going to be because workers say, we’ve had enough and we deserve better, and it’s not up to politicians or millionaires to decide what the “better” is; it’s up to us. 

Maeve Collins at Spyhouse Coffee

Collins has been working at Spyhouse for just over one year and has over a decade of experience in the service industry. She says prior to the pandemic, employees sometimes joked about unionizing when dealing with minimum wage woes, insufficient health insurance and spotty communication. After the pandemic, she says a lack of communication, safe policies, and transparency led employees to consider their idea more seriously. They announced their campaign in September, and have battled publicly with the company's adversarial response.

The main reasoning for unionizing is so that we can have a voice in our safety and our community’s safety. All of the Spyhouses are in very specific neighborhoods, so we’re around the same people, and it’s kind of like you’re a part of it. You walk down the street and they recognize you and it's like, I'm part of the neighborhood. We wanted to have a voice and a say in our safety, and also, that’s probably demand number one.

Any time we had a suggestion about our own safety because of the pandemic, it kind of went, well, we’re working with our team to figure out what is the best thing that we can do. And we weren’t offered hazard pay. We asked for plexiglass and we got mixed messages. There was a full lack of communication on exactly what you were supposed to do, what the mask policies were, how we were supposed to handle certain things. We were kind of thrown in there to figure it out.

We’ve tried just talking to them; this isn’t our first time asking them to listen to us. It always feels like false promises essentially, and having a union just means like, legally, they have to listen to us. They are now being held accountable to listen to our needs. So that’s why we decided to go this way. We know we’ll actually have the representation we want and we deserve.

It’s the employees who have to pay for the union, the business pays zero money into the union. The only way they’d pay more is if we asked for higher wages. We do have hazard pay on there, but it’s further down. We’ve talked about it once, and immediately moved on.

Fair State Brewing Cooperative worker Anna Schmitz

Schmitz serves as community manager at Fair State, where she has worked for over one year, and was involved with organizing the union.

I think a lot of people have this association that you only need to unionize if things are really bad at work. That’s really not the case at Fair State. We have industry leading benefits and wages and we have a good line of communication with management, but, at the same time, like anywhere, no workplace is perfect. There’s always room for things to improve.

Really what unionizing does is give us a seat at the table for setting out and clarifying exactly what we want to see in our contracts as a staff. So it creates and formalizes a line of communication that I think is really healthy for every company to have. It gives you, as a worker, actual power in a way that you don't have without a union. By unionizing, we then have that contract negotiation period where, we together with management are setting the priorities for what’s most important, instead of it being like a one-way prioritization — or a one way conversation, or basically both parties get to have decision making power.

We are conscious of the moment that we’re in. Obviously, we have a vested interest in the company continuing to exist and succeed, and we do know it’s a rough time for the service industry. What we’re asking for is all stuff that really should have no cost to Fair State, and broadly can be categorized into formalizing some HR processes.

Fair State Brewing Cooperative CEO Evan Sallee

Fair State founder and CEO Evan Sallee made the rare decision to voluntarily recognize his workers’ union rather than requesting an election to be held. He says this is just a further step in making his workplace more democratic.

Looking at the number of employees involved, to me, it just seemed like a full conclusion. I think one reason that employers may want to have a vote is if maybe there is a substantial amount of disagreement among staff. I didn’t feel that that was necessary or would be fruitful. At the same time, I was also excited about this as a potential vehicle for the future democratization of the business.

One of the reasons we founded Fair State was to try to build a business that kind of thinks about what business is and can be, from a slightly different lens. A big part of that is building this business on democratic principles. That’s pretty unique among businesses which are more traditional, top-down. To my mind, this unionization is really kind of a next step in that democratic evolution. Because it provides a formal, legal structure for our employees to have their voices heard, and for them to really have a seat at the table.

There are certain ways of democratizing this business or whatever that might actually be unlawful, unless we did it through some sort of a union structure. It certainly strengthens their ability to have a voice, it just does give them that legal framework.

I think it also helps to provide a framework for a future in which, for whatever reason I’m not around, someone else in place, it provides a vehicle for staff to have their voice heard in any scenario.

Patrick Machel at Anchor Brewing

Anchor Brewing, which has been a San Francisco institution since 1896, unionized after the company was bought by the Japanese conglomerate Sapporo Holdings in 2017. Work to unionize began in 2018, making Anchor among the first craft breweries in the country to unionize in recent years. Its contract went into effect earlier this year, just before the pandemic hit. Their work has given workers in the Twin Cities a blueprint.

I think one of the big things with why craft is starting to get more of a unionization push is that a lot of time with craft, people get taken advantage of for like having a cool job — like for a long time it was somewhat sustainable for businesses to do that. And now, since we have definitely opened the seal for some kind of protection and better pay and more seats at the table, people ... are starting to see a resurgence in unionizing workplaces.

I think because we did it, a lot of people were getting a little bit more, braver, with going forward and doing it. … we have to be the example, and now because we are the example, a lot of people are being part of it.

When is a right time to unionize? You can't just put a time limit or a specific instance for when to unionize. If it’s there, if the workers want it, the workers deserve it. A big thing is like, yeah, pay rates are going to go up with unions, but it’s a negotiation. With Anchor, we weren't doing so hot at the time … we weren't trying to destroy the company, we just wanted a seat at the table and the decency to be treated like human beings and not numbers on a piece of paper.

Or one of the big things people say is, well if you don't like your job, why are you there still, go find another job? And the response to that is, well, this is them taking action for their workplace. Like, why should we have to be trying to fight for minimum wage jobs all the time when we could just make our workplace better?

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